Wander Into –

A Collection of Journeys

A letter to those afraid of getting stuck January 9, 2017

Filed under: Volunteering — Wanderhere @ 9:45 am
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I never thought I would end up here. I’m sure I never expected to end up anywhere, but in the rare moments that I would try to plan my future, here was never part of the package.

Let me explain.

For the past 3 and a half years, I have been living in the small town I grew up in. Even admitting that now brings me a wave of shame and guilt as I have been taught to feel by almost every peer that I grew up with. I am marrying a man who has never lived outside of Northeast Ohio, and loves his family more than anything else in his life. I assure you, many people never would have guessed that I would have ended up here.

They’re wrong.

The words ‘ended up’ are fundamentally wrong for any statement about my life, and it is partially the fault of social media that had made me feel this is the end. But that is an argument for another life.

I’m not ending up anywhere. I’m not ending. This, all of this, is the beginning. I wouldn’t be marrying this wonderful man if I didn’t truly believe so. And that says a lot. Because it’s taken a whole hell of a lot to get me to stay.

 I’ve never known much about my life. I mean planning-wise. I’ve never been a planner. I always just thought things would work themselves out if I found things I enjoyed doing and people I enjoyed being around. That’s not to say that I haven’t worked hard. Many of my closest friends know the, “I’m too tired and stressed to function,” face which rears its ugly head far too often. I remember panicking in the fourth grade because we had to do a career project. I had no idea what I wanted to do. Even then, the decision for a career felt so concrete.

In college, I remember wandering around outside, talking to my dad, crying that I wouldn’t know what to do with a creative writing degree, that I didn’t want to teach, that I didn’t have any clear path.

The world likes clear paths. It likes logic and step by step analysis. It likes rushing who you are into a box so everyone else can compartmentalize you into a theory, an allegory. You’re easier to swallow that way. When I looked around at 21, I saw no one like me. The path to graduate school didn’t suit me. I had no clear understanding of what I could do with all of these new critical thinking skills.  

I traveled. I had 2 years of gritty, real experiences. I found faces that longed for the sun, and hearts that wandered. But during that time, I missed things. I wasn’t there for family, for illness, for near death. I was too far to hold them. Part of me felt that it was ok. They told me to live. They told me to go.

But I am missing the point.

This letter is for those souls who feel stuck. For those who feel like they ended up, instead of chose, and are bitter and shame-driven and guilty about it.

There is a whole world out there, and yes, I know that to you it is already painfully obvious because you feel like you are missing it. I know, I feel it too still. But to those who are still in their hometown or not where they want to be, please know –  this place that you are in is a place. It is somewhere. Maybe you are the change that it needs for now. I know you do not need these things to rest only on your shoulders when you already feel so heavy, but understand that when you shed the weight of guilt and shame, you can now carry this responsibility.

You’ve heard it before – you are not here forever unless you actively chose to be. The things that happen in your life take time. Think of what has really shaped you. The things that are worth it take time, and you’ve got plenty of it. No matter how young or old you are.

These reasons seem frivolous. Ultimately it’s your decision to make amends with this life. 

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The Hardest Part Of Traveling No One Talks About July 27, 2014

Filed under: Volunteering — Wanderhere @ 9:24 pm

My thoughts exactly.

Thought Catalog

image - Flickr / Corie Howell image – Flickr / Corie Howell

You see the world, try new things, meet new people, fall in love, visit amazing places, learn about other cultures – then it’s all over. People always talk about leaving, but what about coming home?

We talk about the hard parts while we’re away – finding jobs, making real friends, staying safe, learning social norms, misreading people you think you can trust – but these are all parts you get through. All of these lows are erased by the complete highs you experience. The goodbyes are difficult but you know they are coming, especially when you take the final step of purchasing your plane ticket home. All of these sad goodbyes are bolstered by the reunion with your family and friends you have pictured in your head since leaving in the first place.

Then you return home, have your reunions, spend your first two…

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What Living Without a Door in Oakland Taught Me November 21, 2013

It’s coming up on the fourth month of my unemployment, and sometimes I feel like the last 2 years of volunteering never happened. To keep this from happening, to remind myself of the important things I learned about the world and my place in it, I drift into memories that have stuck with me, even over the miles and minutes.

The last round of my AmeriCorps NCCC experience had my little band of misfits living in Alameda, California – an island suburb of Oakland in the Bay Area. We were serving Reading Partners, helping them stuff over 1,000 new curriculum packets to be sent all over the country for their tutoring program (It’s really an amazing organization that takes full advantage of all AmeriCorps factions, and utilizes volunteers to connect the community. Check them out!).

Obviously working hard at Reading Partners

Obviously working hard at Reading Partners

Since the organization an NCCC team serves is compelled to provide housing for its poor volunteers, my team had stayed in everything from tents and yurts to fully furnished lodges and dorm rooms. Much like transportation and food, our living spaces were usually communal, where bunk beds were commonplace. This is why, when the contact person at our sponsor organization told us that they had rented us a house, we high-fived in excitement. A house meant separate bedrooms. It meant personal space and alone time. It meant dancing in your room naked if you really wanted to.

“I must warn you, it’s not furnished. Don’t expect the Ritz Carlton,” our contact cautioned.

Didn’t care. We had our own rooms.

When we arrived at the house – a Victorian style fixer- upper – we rushed up the stoop and into the house. The hallways were adorned with dust and pale, yellowing paint. The rooms were crusted in memories – you could feel it. Several trinkets had been left by the previous owners – a small note of emergency numbers, hash marks on the wall to mark growth, bent and dirtied spoons still sitting in the drawer.

Morning coffee on the porch before work.

Morning coffee on the porch before work.

Though these spaces we would inhabit were on loan to us, they became our homes, even to us nomads. The only thing our rooms were adorned with this time around were the shelter cots we had brought with us, and our issued red duffle bags. To an outsider, our rooms seemed barren, but to us, a group who had already traveled thousands of weary miles with only these few possessions, we found that we had the fullest living space in the world.

In order to pick rooms fairly, we drew numbers. Unfortunately, I picked the second highest number, leaving me with the choice to live on the ground floor/basement level, or a room on the main floor that was probably the front sitting room at one point. The front room was the first one after entering the house and had no door. I had big objections to living on the ground floor, which smelled of cat urine and housed our inevitably noisy communal kitchen. I chose the room without a door. It put a new meaning to an open door policy.

2013-06-13_11-48-10_336By this point in time, I had spent the better part of 8 months with these 6 other people – through disaster relief in New Jersey, to climbing mountains to maintain trail in Washington. Our lives had become patterned in live work sleep live work pick up and go. Beyond anything I ever imagined, we were a functional and entirely dysfunctional unit.

At the beginning of NCCC, I wanted nothing to do with being a leader. Though one of the oldest ones on my team of 18 to 24 year-olds, I purely wanted the experience and excitement with none of the responsibility. About half way through, when our team was falling apart due to internal struggle, I realized I was so disappointed in my participation and had a decision to make: quit or invest. There was no admiration in being a stagnant body in the experience. I tried to step up, trying to become a sounding board or a better person along the way. I’m not saying I got it right all of the time, but I hope my intentions became more transparent. I believe I gained so much more out of those last 4 months than I thought possible.

So when it came to living without a door, I at first reverted to the me, me, me mindset. This seemed different than all the other times I had to live in the same room other people. It felt like everyone else had the privilege of privacy, and I still did not. Eventually, I bought a 3 dollar, salmon colored sheet from a thrift store and used push pins to hang it up. I could still hear all the comings and goings. People would come into my room without a thought. The front porch and stoop was right next to my front window, revealing both early morning coffee drinkers and my late morning bed hair.

That first week was rough on me. Depending on moods, doors to others’ bedrooms were opened or closed. Depending on whether my push pins would stay in the wall was what determined my space. My teammates would make remarks on how messy my room was if my sheet was down. Even when I put the sheet up, I’m pretty sure I broke the record for fastest change of clothes, knowing the sheet was semi-transparent, and not knowing how soon someone would walk through the door or down the hallway.

Beach time in Alameda

Beach time in Alameda

I put up that sheet as a boundary line. This flimsy, pinkish colored piece of cloth was supposed to keep people out. Little did I know, it served much better to let people in.

The second week, I tried something new – patience…oh, and ear plugs. There was nothing I could do (besides move to the basement) about living without a door. As time went on, the sheet seemed silly – my boundary was entirely penetrable. But you know what else I discovered? So was everyone else’s.

I realized how false our space was. In these close quarters, the illusion of personal space gave us all comfort, but these single rooms were no match for the already intertwined support beams we had become. Even without rooms, we had earned the respect and understanding to meet each individual’s needs.

It was in those final weeks that I think my teammates understood my privacy needs best, and for that, I let more people come in and out of my room. I put up the sheet as a boundary, but it seems that all those lines had been crossed months ago. Sure, there was varied frustration when people would enter my room, my space, without asking, but there was also a sense of kinship as we began to reflect on who we had become.

My door was the blanket we laid out at the beach. It was the tablecloth to picnics and barbeques. Though I would never admit it at the time, I could keep tabs on who was out, and who was making breakfast. Because I had no door, my room was the place we gathered when we found out one of our teammates was in crisis, and formulated how to help him. “Can I borrow your door?” became a rallying cry of togetherness as it was utilized for group activity.

I ended up in the room without a door because of luck of the draw. That salmon colored sheet, stained with sea water and foot prints, proved how my boundaries were broken down time and time again. It proved how trust and respect was maintained, even in such a close space. It proved how letting people in was so much better than keeping them out. I couldn’t escape those people, and now, months later, I’m sorry that I ever wanted to.

 

Unless. September 26, 2013

There was a glimmer of hope this week as I finally got my first interview since I started applying to jobs 2 months ago. I was excited that it was with a well-respected youth outdoor excursion organization, and was in Portland, Oregon to boot! The position was for an assistant instructor for their outdoor education program.

“How familiar are you with Portland?”

I should have known when that was the first interview question…

Still, this didn’t stop me from fantasizing about road bikes, flannel, and all around hipster atmosphere a job in the Pacific Northwest would allow. I dreamed of taking a chance and driving my car out, having to live out of a duffle bag, and be sustained on the passion of my dreams and the outdoors for the first few weeks. It was going to be something that scared me into being a better, more complete person. It was going to be one of those stories I told with pride as listeners said, “You really did that?” My next great adventure was within sight.

And then yesterday happened.

It was one of those days I just felt like I couldn’t get it right. After scouring the internet for non-profit jobs, and realizing my qualifications didn’t match, what felt like, anything, I gave up. I started questioning my experiences, feeling as though they were worthless in the eyes of any employer.

Earning the Presidential Service Award, Congressional Service Medal, Hurricane Sandy Disaster responder pin, and AmeriCorps VISTA completion pin mean something, right?

Earning the Presidential Service Award, Congressional Service Medal, Hurricane Sandy Disaster responder pin, and AmeriCorps VISTA completion pin all mean something, right?

I didn’t do anything on my to do list. I spent a majority of the day watching the second season of New Girl and relating to the character Jess’s unemployment woahs. When I wasn’t zombie-ing in front of the television, I was lying on the floor, contemplating how useless I was.

And then the email came. The, we appreciated you applying email, the you weren’t the right fit email, the better luck somewhere else email.

No Portland. No west coast. No usefulness or worth.

And then my car broke.

I was waiting in line for to go food as my brother parked the car, and, after a few minutes, he came inside, fiddling with the keys in his right hand. “Your power steering went out.” I just kept staring straight ahead. It took most of my concentration not to let my tears break the surface.

Unemployed, no car, broke.

I felt completely defined by these things last night.

But then this morning happened.

As I walked back downtown from the mechanic’s, I glanced at my phone to see what time it was. For some reason, the background stuck out. It was nothing new – a collage of postcards and remnants from my 2 years of volunteer work that I had taken a picture of back in July. There is a white bumper sticker in the picture with the phrase, “Your world. Your chance to make it better.”

YOUR CHANCE TO MAKE IT BETTER.

YOUR CHANCE TO MAKE IT BETTER.

Plain and simple, the message was clear.

There are moments that are meant to act as clear indicators in your life. A Wednesday evening dinner at a camp in Southern California was one of them. At that point in time, I was seriously considering quitting AmeriCorps NCCC. Team dynamics seemed to be all sorts of complicated, and I felt as though I could be doing volunteer work much more happily somewhere else. I was on track to make a decision by the end of the week about whether or not to stay.

Before each meal at the camp, we said a prayer or were read a quote. That evening, the camp director picked a quote at random. It was the ‘Unless’ quote from Dr. Suess’s, The Lorax

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing’s going to get better. It’s not.”

If I was looking for a sign, that was it. Obviously, I decided to stick with NCCC, and completed one of the hardest and most rewarding experiences of my life.

Finding a job in something I’m passionate about is my chance to make “it” better, whether that be someone else’s life, or an organization, or the world with a capital w. If I don’t commit myself to doing this, who will?

I’ve thought about giving up on this whole job thing recently. It would be so much easier to find something I could stand day to day instead of a job I am seriously passionate about. In the long term though, how easy would it be to live with myself?

I am thankful for the small things - a beautiful fall day.

I am thankful for the small things – a beautiful fall day in Cleveland.

I am going to keep caring about this job search. I am going to keep looking for something that has me helping people in a way that is meaningful to me, whether it’s in Portland, Oregon or Bow, New Hampshire or any town, city or wilderness in between. I could make ends meet working at a Subway or substitute teaching or staying as a cook at the camp I’m currently making money with. But I can’t. I won’t. I’m going to keep at it.

Unless. Unless. Unless.

I had my self pity day, and even though I have felt like I have been on the verge of tears for most of the past 36 hours, I find myself trying as hard as I can to not define myself by my unemployment or monetary worth.

For now, it’s all I can keep believing in.

Special note: Thank you, thank you, thank you to all my friends and family over the past few months. I could not do this without your encouragement and love via phone calls, texts, letters, posts, and hugs. You are the reason I bounce back. You are the reason I believe I can take on the world. I can only hope to repay you somehow in the future. Sending you all much love.

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She was not where she was going, but she was not where she had been August 9, 2013

As my friend and fellow AmeriCorps Alum put it, “What a wonderful chance we have to be knee deep in our emotions.”

Sunset in Oakland

Sunset in Oakland

There is so much to still say about everything I went through for the past 10 months. So many deep feelings about departures and starting overs and homecomings. So many things about good-byes and lost loves and never-did-I-get-to-do or will-do-agains. I am feeling such a loss of culture and who I was defined through it.

I have done this before, but it always seems hard to reconcile when it actually happens. I come back this changed and passionate person, completely defined by the experience I just went through, a trumpeter for all things AmeriCorps or camp or college. As new experiences and life phases happen, the passion of this moment fades. Pictures or memories that once made me cry are now tucked into a place that a simple, “that’s nice,” contains all of the emotion I can muster. The mind acts as a grate, and much of what I am feeling now will be washed over in one month? Two?

My Mom and Dad picked me up from Sacramento after my graduation, and we spent a week driving to Yosemite and Phoenix. I was able to see more amazing and breathtaking things in that week, and was given the opportunity to re-connect with my parents after not seeing them for the better part of a year. While in Arizona, peering out over the red rock in Sedona, my dad gave me the chance to decompress from what was going on in my head. As I fought back tears describing my experiences and sense of loss, he sat and listened, and watching the clouds roll over the desert said, “How many lives we get to lead in this one lifetime. How many things we get to experience and feel and be and do.” I know he is right – this is just the next life I get to lead.P1020447P1020456

There are always little chapters we must put away after finishing. There will always be transition and yearning for how things were, lest we forget that how things were were not perfect in the least…but I guess that’s what made them so special. Our experience is defined by those imperfections and moments of absolute beauty because of them – triumphing over the trials that we faced everyday. It’s just that, in NCCC, those trials faced everyday, were never faced alone. Not one moment of those 10 months was at a loss for people. And when those people are no longer there to help hold you up during those trials or sometimes cause them in the first place, there is an overwhelming sense of loneliness. It feels like this point in time hurts deeper than most pauses between endings and beginnings. Where are my people? And who have I become because of them?

Casey, me, Rachel

Casey, me, Rachel

I find the worst part to be the waiting game with friends, and the worry that the only thing in common in the first place were the gray uniforms. This transition of friendship takes the longest. It’s figuring out what role these people will play in my future, only knowing their constant presence as such an integral part of my past.

Not everything fades though. The important stuff, the stuff that really did change your life, made you more empathetic or hard or vegetarian, remains. It does not get swept away. I take heart in this.

I suppose stay power or not, it is important to remember that – they, it, was everything I had for that period in my life. It did happen, just like camp happened, just like college happened, and just like life will keep happening. I have these stunning moments I am able to latch on to – those memories that just won’t leave me. Or maybe it’s the memories that do, and all I am left with is a warm afterglow to sustain this powerful thing that just happened, knowing that not actually recalling the very words or actions is not as important as knowing that it made me feel deep inside my being.

Yes, I am hurting. I am reconciling with being home and lost and not where everyone else used to be. I am yearning for things to be how they were and knowing they can’t be. I only take faith in the fact that I’ve done this before, and those friends who were meant to stick with me, did.

I watched part of Eat. Pray. Love. yesterday, and stumbled across the part where Julia Robert’s character exclaims, “But I miss him!” The other character she is talking to responds, “Then miss him! Send him light and love over the universe and move on.”

Today, I am sending light and love to my fellow Corps Members, our beautiful memories, our trying times, and every single breath in between. I am especially sending love to my team, who became my family. I hope you feel my love surrounding you today and every time you think well over our experiences. I miss you all dearly. P1020397

 

Follow-up, Follow through, Fall forward August 7, 2013

Understanding that my last post was 6 months ago, I am due for an update.

AmeriCorps NCCC just ended two weeks ago, today, and I am still at a loss for words to describe the last 10 months. This post, however, will serve as a summary of the things I have done over this time. It is in no way the whole story, but hopefully that will be drawn out in the months to come.

Green 6 on graduation from AmeriCorps NCCC, Pacific Region

Green 6 on graduation from AmeriCorps NCCC, Pacific Region

Where I’ve been:

Round 1: Sly Park Outdoor Education Center, Pollock Pines, CA (acting as cabin leaders)

Round 2: Hurricane Sandy Relief with VOAD of Bergen County and Rebuilding Together, Moonachie & Little Ferry, NJ (insulating the underside of mobile homes); Camp Stevens, Julian, CA (fire mitigation)

Round 3: Mountains to Sound Greenway, Greater Seattle area, WA (trailwork)

Round 4: Reading Partners, Oakland, CA (curriculum building)

Below you will find the celebration videos my team made after each project round. They serve a little better as an explanation until I get around to it.

Green 6 traveled thousands of mile together, lost 4 members, and served many incredible people, organizations, and communities. We will never be the same people, and hopefully, in the coming days, I’ll let you know a little more why. As I continue on in my journey, I can only hope to keep acknowledging the lessons I learned throughout this experience.

My goals are to follow-up with what we have done, and the organizations we worked for; follow through with posting more regularly; and fall forward into whatever life has in store for me next. I’ll give you a hint, I have no idea.

My next post will serve as a good-bye to my 2 years of volunteer experiences, the people I’ve known through it, and the acknowledgement of all the space between. Grab your tissues, it’s going to be my, “I hope you had the time of your life,” post.

 

Disaster Relief on the East Coast February 20, 2013

Green 6 was deployed to the East Coast for disaster relief work January 8 through February 1. The next several posts will be about our time there.

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Our view from Montclair.

Rest assured, when I heard Green 6 was going to be doing disaster relief work for Hurricane Sandy survivors, I was excited. A huge sway factor for me even doing NCCC in the first place was the potential that I would be able to help if a response was needed. It’s the glamour work that a lot of the people in the program think about when they join.

But, there was also a small sense of disappointment when I heard the news. I had began this program with the idea that I would see the West Coast, live in its vibrant culture, and experience something that I had yet had the chance to. New Jersey and New York, especially, had a familiarity to it, as though it was going to be a return to the unexciting and normal. This experience was anything but normal.

Since we were volunteers on disaster response, we were told many times to be flexible with our living and working situation. We had heard stories from teams coming back from deployment on the East Coast who had to sleep in unheated  buildings and on church pews, all the while, never getting a day off from their efforts.

For the first week, Green 6 ended up staying at a United Methodist camp about 2 hours from our host site. Our days were extended by 4 hours and a sometimes crawling journey along the New Jersey Turnpike. But, each day we returned to a warm meal, and a heated cabins, which is more than could be said for some of the people we met. After about a week at the UMC camp, we were graciously invited to stay at Montclair State University which cut our commute to less than an hour.

Our host sponsor was New Jersey’s Bergen County Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD), but we specifically worked with the Moonachie and Little Ferry Relief Fund and Rebuilding Together, Bergen County. Any idea of grandeur in relief work was forgotten when we found out the specifics of our duties to the community.

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Photo Courtesy of Rachel Thompson

Our jobs became providing a community with warmth. We would be working in 2 mobile home communities installing insulation for the coming winter. We would be working in the cold, under homes that sometimes barely had a 2 foot clearance with fiberglass that cut our cheeks and wrists.

Many of the people in the mobile home community did not receive much aid money or any at all, mainly because the government considered trailers as a vehicle instead of a house. Because of this, repairs remained undone, and mobile homes unchanged after the disaster.

We were told by our supervisor that, “When people were first flooded out, they were like deer in headlights. And the 73 days since the hurricane, many have still not done much to cope with the devastation.”

73 days. It was the first time I would hear the time period since the storm relayed in these terms, but as I stayed on, I realized that homeowners, volunteers, and everyone who lived it, would only speak of Sandy this way.  Sometimes, it seemed like people would tell me the days since their lives were swept away could think of nothing but. 84 days. 67 days. 91. I remember recording the days like this during my freshman year of college – to that point in time, one of the hardest experiences in my life. I’ve been here 8 days. 17 days. 34. It’s like you’re remembering to a time where things were simpler, or at least the vale in your mind says that they were more worth being in. The days are anniversaries since normalcy.

Cards for Sandy survivors.

Cards for Sandy survivors.

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Working under mobile homes with insulation.

There were 13,300 applicants to FEMA in Bergen County, New Jersey. 13,300 people who needed something after Super Storm Sandy. Need is a funny thing to think about because it never manifests itself alone – pride, humbleness, and helplessness can come with it. But then again, sometimes hope does too. And after all of the sand is cleared away, and homes are repaired, and the hearts are given warm coffee and an honest embrace, sometimes there is where people find it. It lies dormant between the minutes our lives change and the moment someone reaches to help you. Between the time it takes insulation to mold and for someone to replace it. Our first day on the job, looking each of us in the eye, our sponsor told us, “Your effort is what’s going to give them hope.” We grasped to this on the cold January days.

After day 1 under the mobile homes, we had no illusions of grandeur in our work. But Green 6 did have something else – a spark in our hearts to provide for the people of Bergen County, for whom, it had been 74 days since a piece of their world had been washed away.