Wednesday, July 22, 2009

You Rebuild

I have sat in front of a computer for sometime now plotting out my entry to explain my return visit to Quito a month ago. I spent two weeks visiting the Center and the experience was invaluable in so many ways. It was a much needed visit that allowed me to better understand what my service meant while at the same time giving me permission to not so much move on as to move forward.

This past year, I have been unable to adequately share with anyone what my experience as a whole meant. It was so deeply personal, I foolishly reasoned that sharing any aspect of it was impossible. People never responded the way I felt they should, and so I shut down. And so when a friend or new acquaintance would genuinely ask about a portion of my service, I held firmly to a generic position that “it was a really great experience” and then subtly attempted to pose my own questions about a different subject, hoping to tactfully divert speaking about it.

On my last day visiting the center, a current volunteer who had journeyed with an Alternative Break group from Loyola Marymount gave to me a letter I had apparently written to this group upon their departure. In it I said the following:

“A bit of advice I too will be putting into practice when I head back in July: take it home. There are stories here that need to be told to the hearts at home that yearn, perhaps unconsciously, to be moved. You will arrive on campus in a matter of hours, and in the green and lush yards, you will struggle to balance the contradiction that is Quito to Westchester. Contradictory it may be, and yet both pieces now work together to in someway define who you are. Rather than deny one for the other, embrace both and seek to integrate these two seemingly contrasting worlds so that you are better in Westchester for your visit to Quito, and the people in Westchester are more informed and better because of the part of you that is the memory of an Ecuadorian street kid.”

Reading it, and seeing how I had failed to live up to the very advice I bestowed upon this group I was reminded of the story in the Bible in which Peter denies Jesus three times before the cock crows twice. And like Peter, the realization of my denial led to an intense wave of emotions.

Dave Eggers, in his powerful book What is the What says the following: “Whatever I do, however I find a way to live, I will tell these stories… because to do anything else would be something less than human. I speak to these people, and I speak to you because I cannot help it. It gives me strength, almost unbelievable strength, to know that you are here… I will tell these stories to people who will listen and to people who don’t want to listen, to people who seek me out and to those who run. All the while I will know that you are there. How can I pretend that you don’t exist? It would be almost as impossible as you pretending that I do not exist.”

And so what I take away most, both from my two years of service and my two weeks of visiting, is, as a friend Nate said in his reflection on returning to Ecuador- "I’ve taken away how blessed i am. To have a college degree. A U.S. passport. Health. Opportunities. Social mobility. I want to help and work with those who don't have those advantages in this world. Kind of like Sister Annie says "to give voice to the voiceless." Ecuador, after a year of being out of my element, affirmed in me only further the belief that I am in my element when I am working on international causes.

There are stories to be told, stories I have for the most part neglected in telling. Brendan spoke about returning from volunteerism as being like your house is burning down, and you don’t know what else to do but go into survival mode and get out of the house. You find yourself then standing amongst the ashes of what was once your familiar and safe foundation, and asking what now? It’s taken a year, but at long last I can answer with confidence what the next part of the metaphor is. You rebuild. It may sound simplistic, but doing it has been anything but easy. I know there are areas I have been weakened and faltered. And I work on those, that is to say, I work on myself- with gentle kindness, something I am great at doing with others but not with myself. And I look to the past for guidance towards the future, steadfast with the knowledge that my work in the future years is what will allow me to pay adequate respect to those from my past that silently accompany me on this journey.

In the coming month, I would love to try an experiment called Memories whereby I post a series of short blogs introducing you to some of the people or memories that were such a vital part of my experience. It's just one small way to begin honoring those that have taught me so much and loved me so unconditionally, at home and abroad.

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