Friday, May 11, 2018

Rocks in My Pockets

    When I was little, I had a habit of picking up rocks and bringing them home in my pockets. Whether they were from the playground at school, the beach, or even my own driveway, every time I saw a rock that looked pretty to me, I picked it up and put it in my pocket.  I did this so much that at some point, my parents got me a box to keep them all in. It was perfect. it had dividers so I could sort the rocks any way my young heart desired, and I called it my "rock box."
     Earlier this week, on one of the warmest days we've had here in months, I decided to take a walk on the beach, and I soon discovered that I have not outgrown my desire to collect every pretty rock I come across. But knowing that I don't have anywhere to put a bunch of rocks, or anything to do with them other than look at them, I took a picture of my favorite rocks and left the beach with just one piece of sea glass in my pocket. 
     Although it seems I've learned some restraint when it comes to picking up actual rocks, the thing that lead me to taking some alone time on the beach that day was my habit of collecting metaphorical rocks.

A program I'm trying to help out with is fading away due to lack of attendance and people start to ask questions, that's a rock in my pocket.

The food bank runs out of community donations again despite my best efforts, and another rock goes in my pocket. 

My apartment starts to get messy because I don't have the energy to make myself clean it after working all day, and another huge rock goes in. 

I try to make a newsletter that's supposed to include "success stories" and my mind goes blank. If my newsletter was about things I feel like I haven't done well enough, it would be ten pages long. 

     Whenever this habit comes up in conversation with people who know me and care about me, which it has several times this week, I'm advised to stop taking everything so personally, and stop being so hard on myself.
     I would love to take this advice, if only I knew how. I've been called sensitive for as long as I can remember, and maybe my habit of carrying things in my mind is rooted in that sensitivity. But if losing that sensitivity means I stop caring about things that really matter to me, like running the food bank well, and contributing to my job and my church in helpful ways, then maybe I don't want to lose it.
     I think I'm always going to be a rock collector, whether it's the occasional pretty stone I find on the beach, or the things I care about that I carry around in my mind. I just need to find a way to have a rock box for my metaphorical rocks, because they are to heavy for me to always hold them in my mind.      
I regret not picking up the rock on the left with the perfect stripe. That's a good rock. 

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Reflections from a 19 Hour Layover

    I spent 19 hours straight in an airport recently. It was not originally planned that way, but my flight out of Nome was cancelled because of fog, of all things. You would think it would be a blizzard, but it was just some standard hazy weather that threw the entire plan off.  So, I eventually made it to the second stop, but had to wait those nineteen hours before catching my flight to the third stop. There's something about being an an airport that makes me feel like the world outside is detached and distant.
     At some point during the layover, I think of the children I left behind. I wonder if they are still struggling through that compass worksheet, the one that frustrates me to no end but made me laugh endlessly when in a halfhearted attempt to answer "Which direction is the school from your house?" one of them confidently replied, "Seven!" and then smiled proudly at me, hoping their humor would get them out of finding the right answer, and reminded me how much I love spending time with them even though I sometimes forget because my emotional energy is drained.
     I also think of my fellow Fellows that I will soon see, and wonder if they struggle with the same things I do, or if they are all expert missionaries and it's just me who doubts myself.
     This airport is neutral territory. It is a no-mans-land between the place where I will try to put into words all I have experienced over the past eight months and try to remind myself that I have nothing to prove to anyone about the validity or effectiveness of my work, and the place where I have been constantly attempting to live up to everyone else's expectations, a habit that I know is futile, but one I can't seem to break. I am a stranger to everyone except one other person in this airport, and it feels nice to have nothing to prove to anyone.
     In this airport, I read 78 pages of a book just for fun. Not a book I was assigned to read for spiritual growth, just a fun book that I chose on my own and will never have to discuss with anyone unless I want too. When I'm hungry, I go get something to eat. When shopping sounds good, I go shopping. When I am tired, I find a comfortable spot and go to sleep.
     The 19 hours pass slowly, and somehow too quickly. All too soon, it is time to board a plane and rejoin the outside world with all of it's demands. 19 hours will not be long enough to convince me to stop trying to meet the demands altogether, I would need a much longer retreat to convince myself of such a drastic concept. But those 19 hours reminded me of who I can be when I have no one to please, and that is a part of myself that it is nice to see again.

My view for much of the layover. 


Friday, March 23, 2018

Waiting at the Finish Line.

     If you saw any pictures I posted last week, you already know that the Iditarod dog sled race happened, and that I was pretty thrilled about it. I have been aware of Iditarod since I was a child, but I never could have imagined while watching the Balto movie that I would ever get to witness this historic race in person.
     Sometimes when you look forward to something for a long time, as I have looked forward to this ever since I learned I would be coming to Nome, that thing can turn out to be a dissapointment if it doesn't quite meet your expectations. I am happy to report that was not the case with Iditarod. It was everything I hoped for, and now that I know what it's like, I'm already looking forward to next year.
     One of my favorite things about it was how close the public can get to the action. About 15 minutes before a musher is expected to arrive, a siren goes of that can be heard throughout the town. People (mostly tourists and me) gather at the finish line to greet them. After the first few mushers are in, the crowds start to decrease and it's pretty easy to get a spot right at the front. Getting to be mere feet from the dogs and their mushers, and to later get to meet many of them, was better than anything I imagined.
     It goes without saying that churches don't send missionaries to paradise, and Nome certainly has it's share of problems. I get so worried sometimes that if I post to many pictures or talk to much about things that are fun, people will lose sight of the reason I am here, or think that I somehow cheated the system and am enjoying a 2 year vacation sponsored by the Methodist church. Although that's not true at all, I briefly considered taking a critical look at how the bars being open until 3AM during Iditarod week affects the community, but it would have been halfhearted. The truth is, that just added a few more hours to a problem that already existed here, and will continue to exist long after every musher has gone back home. And honestly, Iditarod was a great experience, and sometimes it feels good to just share a fun experience I had without trying to find a deeper meaning in it. But even as I write those words, I realize that I did find a deep meaning in my first Iditarod, completely by accident.
      It's nice to be there to see the end of someone else's race, to have no responsibility other than to cheer them on and enjoy the moment. It's even nicer to be reminded that in order to inspire other people, I need to have people (and dogs) that inspire me. I've never been an avid sports fan before, but in the Iditarod, I have discovered something to be a fan of, and some athletes to be inspired by. I'm still so excited that I got to experience part of the "last great race on earth", and I'm ready to gather with the tourists in subzero temperatures once again next year, to wait at the finish line and be inspired.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

A Moment in Time

     A few nights ago I snapped a picture of children playing together at the Boys and Girls Club, thinking I would share it on social media. But as I looked back at it, I knew I had more to say about this picture than I could fit in a Facebook post
      You can't tell from this picture that at least one of these boys struggles with peer interactions, so to see them all playing together civilly without the prompting of an adult was a big deal, even if it only lasted a few minutes before the bickering began,
     You can't tell from this picture that these boys are growing up in a place that is beautiful and wild, but at the same time isolated and limited in many ways. You can't see how myself and many others like me spend so much time and emotional energy wracking our brains for any idea that will enrich the lives of these children.
     You can't tell from this picture that just before I took it I had returned from the food bank, emotionally exhausted, and you would never know just by looking at this picture how much I needed to see this brief moment of children just being children.
    Witnessing this brief interaction reminded me that it is okay, and even important, to love people as they are. In my line of work, there is always a goal to reach, which is something I need to keep me motivated. But sometimes I forget that it is okay to enjoy the moment even though the goal hasn't been met yet, and watching this simple interaction reminded me that I  need to do more of that..
     Maybe that's why I have been having trouble putting my experiences into words lately. Because at first glance, this looks like a standard picture of some children playing together. But if you had been there, you would know that it is so much more than that.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

I'm Not Supposed to Tell You This

Six months ago, I was at training, spending three weeks cooped up in the same building with forty-four other young aspiring missionaries. We had countless hours of discussions about difficult topics that are usually avoided. We sang songs in everyone's native languages, we had debates sometimes, and though I can't speak for everyone, I know I felt empowered. At the end of it all, I really believed I had been equipped with the information I needed to go out into the world and make a real difference.
Now I have been here two days shy of six months, and I have had enough time to start getting a more realistic view of my role here. The days begin to blend together, afternoons and evenings full of Perler beads and Candy Land, of "Close the door, it's below zero!" and "jump ropes are for jumping, not tying each other up." and even once "Why did you throw the doorstop in the trash can?"

It's not exactly what I thought it would be, but oh how I love what it is.

  I am slowly coming to terms with the fact that it is very likely that nothing I do during my two years as a US-2 is going to leave a noticeable, long-lasting impact. I know I'm not supposed to say that, but it's the truth. There are some barriers that I just don't have the resources to break down. Please don't take this as me fishing for compliments, I don't need anyone to tell me that what I do matters, because I know it does. I just needed to come to terms with the fact that I am only one person, and my sphere of influence has limits.
    I'm not being cynical, I'm just being realistic. In order to make a permanent impact on these children outside of the four walls of our after-school program, I would need a social work degree, or a law degree, or some other expensive piece of paper that I don't feel led to acquire at this point in my life.
So I've decided, after receiving some solid advice and doing a lot of thinking, that I just have to make the hours these children spend with me the best they can be. Many days I fail at that, but I'm working to become better. I can't change their circumstances, but I can listen if they need to talk. I can find crafts for them to do, and help them with their homework, and remind them for the hundredth time that jump ropes are for jumping, not for tying your friend to a chair. And while these things will likely not even be remembered a few years from now, at least I can take comfort in the fact that they matter in the moment.
    If I've ruined your vision of what missionaries do, I'm sorry. I'm not supposed to tell you this, but people who work with and for churches are still just people. It is time for me to accept the fact that there are some things I cannot do. Once I have done that, I can focus on doing my absolute best at the things I can do.

Friday, January 26, 2018

The Work of Love

     I've been working on this post for days, searching for the right way to say what's on my mind. Over and over again, I see my fellow missionaries making passionate statements about systems of oppression, and other popular buzzwords, and I support them in their desire to make those statements.  I am sometimes envious of the way my colleagues use the power of words to bring their experiences to life.
     My dilemma is that the work I do in my day to day life as a missionary doesn't match up with any popular buzzwords. To many people it may look like I just play with children all day, and while that's partially true, there's more to the story that I don't share much about because I don't want to exploit stories that don't belong to me. Many of the children I see everyday are in the foster care system, and last week there was a situation that left me feeling emotionally drained, and reminded me that there really is a need for missionaries here because there is a lot of brokenness that you might miss if you don't stay for a while and pay close attention.
   I feel that most of the time when people in the mission field share stories, they rush through the middle to make the story more appealing. They tell you about someone struggling, then there's a small part about some action, and then suddenly there's a beautiful come-to-Jesus moment and then everyone lives happily ever after. What you don't often hear about is all of the minutia and the struggling that happens in between.
     I'll probably never have a job writing greeting cards for Hallmark, because the truth is I've come to realize that sometimes loving people is hard work. That is especially true when you encounter people whose life experiences have made them need to put up walls in order to survive, and you are one of the people who is trying to help them break down those walls.
    I don't mean to be cynical or imply that there are no breakthrough moments in the work I do. I've seen them, they just don't typically happen in loud ways. And by admitting that this kind of work can be draining, I do not mean to say that I don't enjoy it. It is without a doubt hard work, but at the same time it's the most fulfilling work I've ever known.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Unwritten Moments

     There was a lot to write about in 2017. I started the year off applying to be a Global Mission Fellow, spent a good part of my summer at training meeting new friends that have similar passions, and spent the last few months of the year acclimating to life in Nome, Alaska.
    I wrote about a lot of that, but the start of the new year has inspired me to think about all of the things I haven't written about yet.
      I haven't written about all the time I spend washing dishes. It's not glamorous, but when you're cooking for a large group of people, it's something that needs to be done and as part of the staff, sometimes it's my turn to do it. And then there are my own dishes at home, which never seem to be clean even though sometimes I feel like I spend half of my life standing in front of a sink. People love to hear about the moments in the life of a missionary when there are inspiring breakthroughs, but in between those moments there are many more moments spent doing mundane tasks like washing dishes.
     I haven't written about the days when everything seems to go wrong and I become frustrated and act in ways that I regret, or the days when bad experiences from past jobs haunt me and I start to doubt myself.
     I haven't written about my internal struggle with a large part of my job as part of a faith-based program being at a place that is not faith-based. I've come a long way with my thoughts on that as I've struggled with it privately, and maybe some time in the future I'll be ready to write about it.
     This year, I want to get back to writing authentically. Not that I have been lying in my writing, but sometimes I have elaborated on the happy moments and swept aside the difficult moments. I've put the pressure on myself of satisfying everyone back home with stories of a grand adventure, and forgotten that by definition, adventures are unusual and even hazardous.
     I've been told a lot lately that I seem very happy, and thankfully I can report that I truly am. But as a person who also knows what it feels like to be very unhappy, and felt that way in the not so distant past, sometimes my desire to convince myself and everyone around me that I really am happy now has made me afraid to acknowledge anything unhappy in my life.
     In 2018, I will strive to write a more authentic story. I will attempt to share more of the challenging stories, but also the moments of success and joy. I hope you will come along with me for this year of authentic stories.