Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Doldrums of Winter vs. Amate House

The following is a reflection written by Mark Piper, one of this year's South House Volunteers.

The life of a volunteer can be paradoxical; both fun and vexing, fulfilling but still insatiable, joyful but also rancorous, what else would you expect,
with long work weeks, little pay, a lot of hope and determination in the face of obstacles and frustrations strewn about us as we navigate our journey through Amate?

The word attitude never once appeared to be uttered by Jesus in the Gospels, but let’s be honest explicit or implied, attitude has a lot to do with how we handle life, students, clients, housemates, rules, set-backs, relationships...oh yes, and this little thing called winter.

For me a person who couldn’t be a Stoic even if I tried, the ups and downs of life as a volunteer seemed to have been exacerbated in the winter months. Long days felt longer when I left the house for work, in the dark at 7:15AM and when I left work for home at 4:30PM, the stress level of the clients I saw going through foreclosure seemed to pique at the Holiday Season, and it was so gosh darn cold, I think if we stayed inside any longer we would have had cabin fever. You cannot even imagine the things we
discussed as we were snowed in for the “snowpocalypse” of 2011.

But, with all that being said, when you are a volunteer, especially one in Amate House when times get tough at home or at work, it’s hard to let the winter blues beat you down too badly as the attitude of servant leadership instilled in us from day one, seems to inhibit complaints to grow or fester, sadness from turning negative and frustration soon turns into laughable moments.

So while the life of a volunteer can be paradoxical, in the end it isn’t the events or emotions that define us or our service – in this winter I think for myself and for South House as a whole we’ve discovered it’s how we proactively prepared for and then how we let positive attitudes react to unfavorable weather or circumstances. If we can survive below normal temperatures, 20 inches of snow in 36 hours, living in the dark, with fickle heat, while still putting our best foot forward for the interest of those we serve (that’s why we’re here after all), I think in a battle royale between Old Man Winter and Amate House there is no match at all. With the attitudes instilled in all of us, my money is on Amate House, after all, winter is now gone… we’re all still here.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Politicians Vs. Volunteers

One of our alumni, Megan Sweas, has written an article for U.S. Catholic regarding the debate around the federal budget and the future of AmeriCorps.

Click here to read the U.S. Catholic article!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Winter Retreat 2011

The following is a reflection written by Vince Nigito, one of this year's North House Volunteers.

The idea of a retreat, I’m told, is part relaxation, part prayer. It’s, you know, spiritual. For some people it is a chance to reconnect with God, for others it’s a time to catch up on sleep. Last year, on our fall retreat, I made a valiant attempt to learn silence. I laid in a bunk bed after everyone else had fallen asleep, lit some candles, and stared at the coils that held the top bunk above me and concentrated, ignoring all wandering thought. Barely. But while it didn’t work, I let whatever I’d scribbled in my journal inform my theology for the rest of the year.

I was skeptical going into this retreat only because last year’s winter retreat had stressed me out so much. While this year’s theme was, “Vocation to Love,” from what I remember, last year’s was OH GOD WHAT ARE YOU DOING WITH YOUR LIFE?”

I recall a speaker, on the subject of discernment, explaining that we see God as the most perfect version of ourselves, which is halting, because even though he was trying to tell us that maybe we already know the people we want to become, it left me feeling like I was talking to myself. Then he went on to say something along the lines of, “You know, hey, do what makes you feel good, right?” Which, while I’m paraphrasing (I believe the direct quote was, “follow breadcrumbs that are tasty”), still was not entirely helpful. I wanted a phone number I could call, at least.

I decided to stay at Amate then because it didn’t feel right to leave. Last year was a transition year. It was a transformative experience. This year would be something else, I thought. This year I was supposed to be confident. I was going to take what I had learned and use it to figure out where I was going. I applied to grad schools, and I was going to go to grad school, and I wasn’t going to think about grad school again until I heard back from them. But then I started thinking that maybe I’ll emerge from grad school in an equal headspace but more poor. How poor am I willing to be, and in what capacity? And maybe I’m supposed to stay here, or maybe I should do a lot more traveling. Maybe I should see a desert for the first time before I do anything else. And also, oh God, what am I doing with my life?

On the first night of retreat, we were shown a circular maze of tape on the ground. I’d been unfamiliar with the Labyrinth as a method of prayer, or anything that didn’t involve Muppets. It should be noted that I held back from making what would have been very hilarious jokes on at least three separate occasions, in the name of spirituality and sacred silence.

There were no wrong turns in the tape paths. The lines just winded around themselves so that anyone traveling through the labyrinth would go back and forth slowly inward until they reached the center, where they travel along the notched inner ring, and then back the way they came. We were told to walk slowly, making ourselves mindful of the journey, praying however we wished, pausing as we chose. I was beginning to think that this three part journey might be some sort of metaphor.

I was wary as I entered the Labyrinth. I looked around to see how people were walking to gauge what I should try to look like for the time being. A few people walked with eyes closed, breathing deeply. Others moved slowly, trying very hard to show in their faces just how meaningful and holy their inner monologue was. I’m sure I looked like a cross between the two: I closed my eyes, but any prayer other than practical has never been my strong suit.

But as I traveled through the maze, I found that it was indeed a metaphor. Whereas the first leg of my journey was riddled with angst, wondering if I was doing things right and why I was here and who I thought I was, by the time I got to the center, I wasn’t counting minutes. I didn’t mind that the way looped back on itself. Maybe it was just an exercise, or maybe it was a spiritual movement. I was, not at peace, but OK. I was on a journey. I was fulfilling my purpose as a person. My fears seemed all at once foolish, like me questioning how long it would take to get to the center, and very grounded. I can’t dismiss anything— not when everything I could do leads to something else.

I moved much slower in the third leg of the labyrinth. I thought of my elders, the people I work with—I visit lonely and isolated elders, and I sit with them, or take them to lunch. I eat a lot. It’s my job to be their friend, and through that friendship, I’ve taken a lot about how who we are effects who we’re going to be, and how so much time passes between then and now, even though I see so many things that they do in myself. I see so many habits I have that they couldn’t kick, and so many things they couldn’t get over, or so many things that I think are so important now that they’ve let recede like a wave. Things will be different when I’m old, I think, but maybe they’ll only have curved around the center. I hated to leave the labyrinth, I’d started to find a lot of comfort feeling the carpet on my feet and traveling along the tape, but I couldn’t very well wait around the exit.

I don’t like to think of anything as “solved,” because I still worry about things I worried about in high school, only less, or differently. Maybe I clung to the ground with my hands over my head waiting for the bomb, and it just occurred to me that it might take a little longer than I expected, and I should grab some coffee in the meantime. I’m in the first leg to the labyrinth. I’m nervous only because this is maybe the third decent sized step I’ve really taken on my own, and it’s the first time I’ve had to make a choice that wasn’t obvious. But there will be more steps. A few at least before I’m very old, and certainly enough while I’m young—That’s what my elders tell me at least: “Oh, you’re young.”

Maybe they’re right.

Anyway, winter retreat was nice. If you’re ever in the area, try the Labyrinth. It’ll rock your world.