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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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.

 

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