Wander Into –

A Collection of Journeys

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.

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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.

 

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.