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!).
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.
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.
By 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.
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.