An Ode to La Villita

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Here’s to the faces and places of Chicago’s La Villita. Paletas dripping with sweet fruit juice. The spice of tacos and tamales that shocks your tongue and burns your lips, but keeps you coming back for more. A foreign language rolling off the tongue of each resident and a lack of the same rolling speech immediately establishing the outsiders. The weathered man selling esquites on the corner and the smiling woman with mangos across the street. That darn ice cream truck playing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” year round and at all hours of the day. Tall iron gates, locked doors, house alarms, and omnipresent fear of gang violence gently counteracted by the laughing children playing soccer in the street late into the night. Neighbors who double park their cars and watch for each other to get home, only to move and reveal the protected parking place. Countless pit bulls barking in each gated yard and the mariachi music blasting from open windows. Waking up to the sound of city roosters and falling asleep to the roar of the train shaking the house only to wake up again when the same roaring train sets off every car alarm in the area. Strictly divided racial boundaries perpetuating stereotypes and inciting misunderstandings but strengthening common bonds. Us and them, us and them, we. Young neighbors who speak no English, but are quick to offer a smile and a wave, or start a snowball fight. Front porch sitting and backyard grilling and alley driving. Dodging potholes and praying away flat tires. Police who are quick to assume and friends who are quick to forgive. Laughing at the pink line’s hue in the morning then fearing its path when traveling alone at night. Discovering the pain of poverty and the growth that comes from simplicity. Learning to become not just one, but one part of a whole.

Embracing the La Villita life this past year has not only given me a place to call home in Chicago, but also blessed me with a new lens through which to view the world. Even though I no longer call this beloved place home, it will remain with me always as I continue to live out what I learned each day during my la villita vida.

Top 5 Takeaways

Now that I’ve been home for a little over a month, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on the lessons I learned and people I encountered throughout my year of service. Here are my top five takeaways from the year that I want to continue to remember in my daily life:

1. live below my means

One of the major focuses of this year was living below our means. Throughout the year, we lived on $2 a day for food, which my community pooled together for one big weekly grocery shopping trip, and $100 per month for personal expenses. We paid .25 for every personal mile we drove in the donated car that belongs to our house, which definitely encouraged me to take public transportation, walk, or even bike on occasion instead of instinctively jumping in the car. Anything that costed more than a free happy hour was too expensive, and leftovers for lunch were a hot commodity. We became the champions of “reduce, reuse, recycle” and have a cabinet full of upcycled salsa jars and endless bags of clothing donations to prove it.  It’s been so eye-opening to see how well I can thrive on so little, and to live in solidarity with those we are serving.

2. get the most out of every last drop

When my dish soap gets low of course I add some water to get the rest out and you better believe that yes, I would like to pack up the 1/4 of my sandwich and 15 fries that I paid for but didn’t finish eating. I’ve learned the importance of scraping every last bit out of the peanut butter jar and putting dish sponges in the microwave to sanitize them instead of just throwing them away. I even dabbled in making my own shampoo for a while when I got frustrated with how fast the shampoo bottle seemed to empty (coconut milk + castile soap with an apple cider vinegar rinse actually worked really well…until I got sick of smelling like vinegar and taking 30 mins just to wash my hair).

3. approach everyone with curiosity

Whether they are the grumpiest or the friendliest, crying or laughing, I have learned to approach everyone with a sense of curiosity. Some of the people who walked int0 the office at Catholic Charities had terrible attitudes and even worse odors but that does not mean that I am any better. I have no idea where they came from or what life experiences have shaped them, but by remaining open and curious I can combat the urge to judge based on differences.

4. wholeness > happiness

Instead of seeking to be “happy”, I want to be whole. I want to live a life that is raw and natural, soaking up every emotion. When the good comes, so does the bad, and both contribute to my overall sense of well-being and growth. Like I talked about in my post Generous Joy, I find it alarming that people put so much emphasis on pursuing happiness as their end goal and push aside sad experiences as bad or wrong. I want to absorb and process every expereince, balanced in joy and able to take on the swinging moods that come my way each day.

5. stay in touch

Some of the people who have remained the closest to me throughout this past year, besides my housemates, are the countless friends from high school, college, and even earlier who have graced me with phone calls (more often voicemails because I had such a strange schedule that doesn’t seem to match up with anybody else’s), care packages, letters, and just general love from across the country. My long distance boyfriend and my family have especially been champs at staying in contact. I’ve felt so carried and comforted even in the worst lows of my year because I’m constantly reminded of how many people love and support me. It’s inspired me to become much better at sending birthday & thank you cards and calling friends just to see how they are doing. Now that I’m back on the east coast I can’t wait to get together with so many of you soon!

The Highlights Reel

This is my final week as an AmeriCorps member. As I think back on the year I’m so unbelievably thankful for all of the amazing experiences that have made this extremely challenging year one of the most rewarding! Without getting too sappy I want to go over my favorite moments of this year, partly for my own nostalgia but also to recognize the amazing people and places that have meant so much throughout it all!

Getting to know each other and the city by touring around with my community members

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Standing across the street from Lollapalooza and being able to perfectly hear Mumford & Son’s performance for free on the other side of the fence

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My incredibly cozy room in our 10 bedroom 5 bathroom house in La Villita

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Weekends at the “beach” (I still haven’t fully embraced Lake Michigan’s sandy shores as a full-fledged beach, give me the ocean!!!)

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The celtic beauty of Old  St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, which continues to have incredible and inspiring homilies week after week and has welcomed us in to the OSP community with open arms. I’ve never cried in church so much as I did this year (Easter Vigil, I’m talking to you)

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Lou Malnati’s Chicago style deep dish personal pan pizzas

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Pete’s three visits which totally helped keep me sane through a year of long distance

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Celebrating Mexican Independence Day in La Villita

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Amate House retreats, where we had the chance to spend a weekend in October on the lake and a weekend in February cross-country skiing and enjoying the Michigan snow

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Splurging on pumpkins to keep childhood traditions alive

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The wedding of my wonderful friends, Erin and Ben, that gave me the chance to fly home for a weekend and celebrate!

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Mastering the art of the slow cooker which makes dinner for 7 after a 9 hour work day a breeze

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Thanksgiving volunteering at Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly

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The SMART tutoring program, every single day of it

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Decorating for Christmas and our house Christmas party

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Watching my ESL students become more confident and fluent!

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Hilarious Valentine’s Day M&M’s with Pete’s face all over them

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Connecting with friends of friends, like Melanie and Katrina (and baby Conor too!) and getting excited for Geena’s wedding in August!

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FOUR winter snowdays with -40 degree temperatures  and +2 feet of snow where we had no choice but to stay inside and indulge in movie marathons

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Sister Helen Prejean giving flowers to “the love house” sister helen

Running the Shamrock Shuffle 8k

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The Amate Magic fundraiser at Navy Pier which honored the volunteers (and gave me a chance to perform my budding ukulele skills) and raised over $130,000 for Amate to continue its mission! (no event in 2014 is complete without a classic selfie)

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Nana’s visit for her 80th birthday complete with High Tea at the Drake.

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Enjoying the AMAZING food that comes with living in a Mexican neighborhood

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The Easter Vigil at our beloved Old St. Pat’s (again, no event is complete without a selfie)

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Easter brunch in our little backyard

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Laura’s visit and our bike/run along the Lakeshore Trail

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The first warm days of spring where we could finally enjoy the beach

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Paletas at Los Mangos

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Taking a tour of the beautiful street art all over our La Villita neighborhood

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The last day of work at our service sites!

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A visit from my parents and sister to move out my stuff, and our trip to the SkyDeck

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It’s bittersweet, but last night was my final night living in La Villita. Today we’re heading to a beach town in Indiana for a week-long final retreat and then it’s back to the east coast I go.

It’s hard to believe that the year is coming to an end already, but I’m so excited for what the future has in store!

Feed the Hungry, Clothe the Naked

For most of the year, my Wednesdays have seemed to last forever.

Not because it’s the middle of the week, with last weekend a distant memory and the coming weekend a hopeful light at the end of the tunnel. Not even because of Community Nights, which are a 4 hour Amate House requirement after a full workday where we join with our community for dinner and some form of personal development.

Wednesdays seemed to last forever because they are filled with that tasks that challenge me the most–challenges that seemed insurmountable until I stopped and opened my eyes.

Let me give you a run down of the tasks I’m referring to…

THE CLOTHING ROOM

My Wednesdays operate on a rotating schedule. Each week I alternate between the clothing room and the food pantry. The Clothing Room, properly titled the Emergency Assistance Clothing Room,  is essentially a large empty room in the basement of Catholic Charities where our amazing volunteers unpack boatloads of clothing donations and organize them to look like a little thrift store. People can come in once a month and, for 15 minutes, dig around for whatever items they may need for themselves and their families. I serve as the intake specialist when I am there, checking people in and finding their file to verify addresses and mark down the date of their visit.

I’m know that I sometimes have a  “rose-colored glasses” view of the world, but no dose of realism could have prepared me for my encounters in the clothing room. People of all races and backgrounds come through our doors, and it’s always a mixed bag of attitudes. The scents and sounds of the clothing room are often overwhelming as I find myself face to face with the nitty-gritty of poverty. Screaming babies, unwashed hair, jaded eyes. Children with no shoes and mothers with no patience. The clothing room pushes me further each week as angry clients took their daily frustrations out on me, the first face to greet them when they enter our little shop.

 

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Entrance to The Clothing Room

 

THE FOOD PANTRY

On the weeks where I am not at the clothing room, I travel to Back of the Yards neighborhood (the yards as in stockyards as in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle) to the Casa Catalina food pantry. On Wednesdays, the pantry receives a truck full of food donations from the Greater Chicago Food Depository. We spend our mornings unloading cases of green beans and peanut butter and organizing them around the pantry. Then we spend a few hours dividing up the food into bags based on family sizes. Often two or three of us pack over 300 bags! Loading each can in, one by one, over and over becomes monotonous. After lunch we package the produce and meat. On some days, I get to do intake at the front, greeting the faces of the people who came in through the doors. On other days I remain in the back, sorting frozen chickens and deciding which bananas were too overripe to distribute to clients. The combination of large amounts of physical labor mixed with the familiar sights and sounds of impoverished neighborhoods began to wear on me and I came to have a sense of dread about Wednesdays.

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The entrance to the “Back of the Yards” Neighborhood

 

Then one day, the gospel at Mass stopped me in my tracks.

“…for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me”

How had I been so blind? Here I was face to face with Christ each Wednesday and I was so caught up in the smell or the negative attitude that I couldn’t even see Him. WAKE UP! I felt so selfish and small. I can hardly call it a year of “service” if I spend the whole time counting down the hours until my escape. It was time for a little reevaluation.

A lesson that I’ve learned throughout the year is that you never know where someone is coming from, so you have to meet them graciously where they are. The woman who is yelling at me to find her card faster is actually a mother who needs clothes for her son’s funeral after he was killed in gang violence. The man who is angry that we don’t have enough clothes in his size needs a new suit jacket because his had been stolen after a job interview the week before. The teen averting eye contact and quietly asking if we have any Pampers to give out is an expecting mother who had to drop out of high school and work to support herself and her unborn child. When I stopped to look at things through the lens of the works of mercy, I gained a whole new perspective on the clothing room and the food pantry. Direct service isn’t just charity, it is a responsibility. Christ doesn’t have to smell good, look clean, and have a smile on his face and a thank you on his lips. He might just as well have dirty hair and a screaming baby on his hip.  I look forward to meeting Him graciously each Wednesday no matter what.

 

Unsure Footing

Last July, I loaded up my parent’s minivan at home in Baltimore, Maryland and after countless tear-stained goodbyes I embarked with my dad and brother on the 15 hour drive to my new home in Chicago. I remember the feeling quite clearly—overwhelming excitement sprinkled with more than a dash of anxiety and anguish. My fears took a backseat though as I absorbed the newness of the situation. New city, new job, and hopefully new friends. Leaving everybody I love and everything I’ve ever known in my comfortable little Baltimore/DC metropolitan bubble and starting a new life, alone, in the midwest was no easy undertaking. No family, no boyfriend, no friends, not even an ocean nearby (although Lake Michigan has proven a worthy substitute). Just me, 6 strangers who would become my community, and a one year AmeriCorps commitment.

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After the initial thrill of meeting my community and exploring the beauty of the Windy City wore off, I found myself face to face with a full-blown identity crisis. Nobody here knows that I am Joe and Maureen’s daughter, Pete’s girlfriend, a Mount de Sales girl, a CUA grad, etc.  No longer was I surrounded by the familiar faces and places that had been part of my story for my entire life. After becoming so accustomed to everything I had known for the past 22 years, I had completely uprooted myself! What was I thinking?! I’m the girl who is a bridesmaid for friends I’ve had for 20 years and whose college roommate was my high school best friend. Yet here I was, surrounded by people who know absolutely nothing about my past, but instead are learning about me moment to moment. How do I put my best foot forward when I’m not even sure who I really am apart from everything familiar? 

Suddenly I found myself with such unsure footing, stumbling around trying to define who I am and what is important to me. I had to get to know myself all over again in a new context, which was a painful process. I never realized how often I have rooted my identity in a skill, relationship, appearance, or habit only to have it come crumbling down around me. If there is one essential thing I have learned during this year of service, it is that the only stable identity is one rooted in God…which is SO much easier said than done. It takes recommitment each day to seek out God’s will and trust in His plan, discovering step by step who He created me to be.  

This year has been a total life readjustment, over and over and over. It’s been a slow but steady process of figuring out where my limits and boundaries are, and stretching myself a little further than I thought I could go. I’ve fallen a million times but each time I feel myself slipping into doubt, confusion, and fear I’ve been able to get back up even stronger. I’ve worked to meditate and journal more regularly to help sort out my true self, and I’ve had the opportunity to notice and root out some bad habits that had just become part of my “normal” while I was back home in my familiar world. I’ve also figured out what really matters to me, and what I can let go of and live without. After a lot of self-reflection and a good amount of faking it until I made it, I finally feel like this year apart has given me the space to develop a sense of confidence in who I am and who I want to be that I never had before.

Here I am, almost a year after taking my first leap of faith, but still resoundingly relating to the feeling of unsure footing. I feel like I’ve figured out more of who I am, but now the question is where I am going. I’ve applied to countless jobs and slowly the interviews are coming in, but I’m still not sure what I’ll be doing when I get back to the East coast. This year of service has taught me to take things day by day, which is terrifying to my strategic, plan oriented mind. But it’s been a beautiful lesson in surrender and trust, knowing that as long as I do my best and follow every opportunity, God will take care of the rest and lead me in the next steps on my journey.

If You Want Me To

A few years ago my close friend Geena (www.lovetheharringtons.com) shared a song that continues to inspire me every day. It’s one of those songs I just keep coming back to. The artist, Ginny Owens, is a blind singer/songwriter with an awesome story! It’s hands down my top played song on iTunes, and I’ve found that the simple message grows and changes with me as the years go by. It’s still so much a part of my life and I love the reminder that even though I don’t exactly know where I’m going in life, I’m never alone (in the best way). I hope it inspires you too!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CZlIsWe5nJc

If You Want Me To- Ginny Owens

The pathway is broken and the signs are unclear
And I don’t know the reasons why you brought me here.
But just because you love me the way that You do
I’m gonna walk through the valley if you want me to.

Cause I’m not who I was when I took my first step
And I’m clinging to the promise You’re not through with me yet.
So if all of these trials bring me closer to You
Then I will go through the fire if you want me to.

And it may not be the way I would’ve chosen
When you lead me through a world that’s not my home
But you never said it would be easy
You only said I’d never go alone.

So when the whole world turns against me
And I’m all by myself
And I can’t hear you answer my cries for help
I’ll remember the suffering that your love put you through
And I will go through the valley if you want me to.

A Day in the Life

During my year of service one of the top questions people ask me quite regularly (coming in at #2 after “Wait, do you mean you’re working for FREE?!?) is

So what exactly do you DO every day?”.

While I would love to perpetuate the image in your head that I spend my days generously giving out food to smiling people in need or high-fiving children who have diligently finished their homework, it’s time to burst that bubble. I’m linking up with Melanie to talk about the often messy never perfect lack of routine that is my daily life. Here goes…

6:30 am
Wake up, avoid the snooze button at all costs, and roll out of bed to throw on some tennis shoes and head to the gym! Ideally, I like to get a quick lift/run workout in made by my wonderful friend Corrie at Train to Win before work. Heavy emphasis on the word ideally…

*FULL DISCLOSURE* I definitely waited until a day where I actually dragged myself out of bed to make the 30 second commute from my house to the gym to post this, no shame. Winter really did me in as far as routines and personal motivation but spring has brought some new resolve.

7:30 am
Throw a jumble of ingredients that sound healthy into a blender to create a quick liquid breakfast and protein boost that can be consumed in the car and fits into the $2/day food allotment. Dump said smoothie in one of our recycled salsa jars and run upstairs to get ready for work.

My favorite smoothie is a little something I like to call “GET IN THE SHOWER NOW OR YOU’RE GOING TO BE LATE” made up of spinach, a banana, 2 scoops of PB, 1 scoop of chocolate protein powder (big splurge, we split it 3 way) and some almond milk.

8:00 am
Make a quick stop in our house prayer room to light a few candles and read a page or two of whatever inspirational/spiritual book I have on hand, currently working on “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Toll (and by currently I mean for the last 2 months) which I highly recommend.

Sprint out the door, often with damp hair or mascara in hand, sometimes sans the lunch I made the night before, and drive to work.

8:30 am-12:00 pm
Every morning is different, based on my wide variety of responsibilities working in Hispanic outreach at my service site,  Catholic Charities.

Mondays are my favorite because they are my planning days, where I spend this time creating lesson plans for the week.
Tuesdays/Thursdays I teach basic ESL to a group of mainly Mexican immigrants.
Wednesdays I spend this time either doing intake work for our Emergency Assistance Clothing Room, or unloading the food truck from the Greater Chicago Food Depository at Casa Catalina Food Pantry.
Fridays I coordinate and manage the Commodity Supplementary Food/ Mother and Child Program, which means I wait for my elderly clients to come pick up their government assistance food packages and help them plan meals they can make using the ingredients given.

12:00 pm
Woof down my lunch, if I remembered it, or scrounge from the stock of assorted snacks I keep on hand for those days where I find myself lunchless. I’ve started planning ahead and keeping some spinach, a cheese stick, and an orange at work which has been a lifesaver (thank goodness for past Liz looking out for future Liz!). On particularly crazy days at the office I fill in at the front desk during lunch, which always leads to some stumbling Spanish conversations with often disgruntled clients.

1:00 pm
The further into my day I get with this schedule the more and more I’m realizing that there is absolutely no “normal” in my days. Some days at this time I’m still doing intake work, where other days I’m working on database management for our client files. Sometimes I’m at the Bishop Goedert Veteran’s Home and sometimes I’m at the food pantry. Never a dull moment!

3:00 pm
On Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays this is when the tutoring program I coordinate begins. Sweaty kids come sprinting into my classroom complaining (often in Spanish)  that they would rather have spicy Cheetos than fruit cups for snack and asking me to refill the water jug 200 times because they are “JUST SO DEHYDRATED”.  After helping them get settled I check in to see how things are going at school and home (beyond tutoring I also strive to keep a mentoring relationship between the students and my volunteer tutors). They work on homework for an hour, and then we spend an hour doing some sort of activity like arts and crafts, science experiments, reading aloud, or gym class.

5:30 pm
Finish off the 9 hour work day and head home, usually getting caught in a terrifying amount of traffic and reminding myself no less than 20 times that it’s not a big deal, and soon I’ll be home.

6:30 pm
We usually eat dinner somewhere between 6:30-8:00, depending on who is cooking and how ambitious they were feeling when they chose their recipe. Two of us cook and do the dishes for the communal meal each night.

If it’s a Wednesday, though, we all come home from work early and eat at 5:00 then head to a different area of the city each week for our development evenings we call community nights, which range in topic. Some of my favorites have been Fr. Fragomeni’s talk about Evangeli Gaudium at the Catholic Theological Union and Dr. Jerry Wagner’s discussion of our Enneagram results and what they mean for us at Loyola University.

8:00 pm
Again, depending on the day, there are a number of different things that can be going on at this time. On Mondays we have Spirituality Nights, which I touched on in my post Cultivating an Attitude of Gratitude. These nights widely vary in content and are planned by a different community member each week. Last week Carla showed us a documentary about child migrants called Which Way Home, which I think everybody should watch!

9:30 pm
Retreat to my room for the evening and try to do some journaling with my last few ounces of energy. Something that’s really rung true with me this year is the idea that “the unexamined life is not worth living” (thanks, Socrates and my college Philosophy requirement!). When I let days go by without stopping to process them they just become part of the daily grind but when I take the chance to take stock of myself and what I learned that day I find growth and God in each day.

10:00 pm
Make my nightly phone call to Pete and finally drift off to sleep in hopes of achieving the ever elusive 8 hour night in preparation to start all over tomorrow!

It’s messy and chaotic but this year has been a beautiful way to ground myself in service and learn lessons in simplicity, communication, patience, humility, and the value of taking life one day at a time. One of my favorite lessons has been the ability to laugh at myself, because no matter how well I plan out my day life loves to throw curveballs!

*I’ll be astounded if anybody actually makes it to the end of this post, I’m exhausted just trying to write it! If you’re looking at this, thanks for being a loyal reader and having an interest in what my year of service really means!

Voiceless

Anyone who has spent even a short amount of time with me knows I love to talk. Whether it’s a late night heart to heart with a roommate or a long distance phone call back home, or even just a chat with the stranger at the L platform, I rarely run out of words. Conversations (probably more like monologues if I’m being honest with myself) are how I express myself and process my sometimes jumbled thoughts. So this past week when I woke up one morning with a mere remnant of my voice left after a bad cold, I panicked. How am I supposed to express all of the random but suddenly immediately important thoughts that I now find popping into my head if nobody can hear me when I try to talk?!

Thankfully, I’m lucky enough to have awesome roommates who don’t mind serving as translators and helped me muddle through the numerous mute moments with a combination of patience, basic sign language (I’ve now added “girl please” “no thank you” and “it’s nice to meet you” to my ASL repertoire), and interpretive dance. All of the frustrating lack of direct communication got me thinking. Without the ability to speak and tell those around me about what I was thinking, I was forced to turn inward with these musings.

During my time without a voice, after I got over the hassle of not being able to speak and looked beyond my own annoyance, I found myself reflecting on what it means to be voiceless. I thought about all of the frustrations that come with not being able to express myself and feeling like nobody could hear what I was trying to say. Who are the people in this world who experience those frustrations of not being able to voice their opinions, needs, and desires every day? They may not be literally voiceless due to laryngitis but who are the people whose voices go unheard? The poor, the isolated, the elderly, the vulnerable, those outside of the boundaries of the law. So many of the people who come through the doors of the Catholic Charities office where I serve each day who tell their stories of being the forgotten and unwanted in society. I’m thankful that after a few days I have been restored to full vocal capacity, but the experience planted an important question in my heart. Who are the voiceless in the world, and what can I do to help vocalize their needs?

 Speak out on behalf of the voiceless ~Proverbs 31:8

Cultivating an Attitude of Gratitude

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“Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson

As a community, each Monday night my seven housemates and I take turns planning a “spirituality night”. Amate House requires that we carve time out of our week for this night, but leaves the content of the evening entirely up to our discretion. Our spirituality nights in the La Villita House have ranged from candle-lit meditations to telling our life stories, and on one particularly enjoyable Monday, crafting. My roommate Katie is an artsy one, and she suggested that for a Lenten spirituality night we create gratitude jars. I’m always up for homemade items and crafting (especially when on a tight budget) and enjoy finding new ways to outlet some creative energy. We sat around our kitchen table, laughing and talking while Katie taught the boys what “Mod Podge” is and repeatedly promised me that it would, indeed, dry clear. As my community members cut up strips of tissue paper and designed our creations, we talked about the types of things that we wanted to fill our jars with. 

“I’m thankful for the students I work with, that they trust me enough to openly share what is going on in their lives”

“I’m thankful for my journal where I can pray and talk to God freely”

“I’m thankful for our warm house and good health”

“I’m thankful that we have cheezits in the pantry, even if they are the knock off brand”  

As Lent has continued I’ve delved deeper into the practice of gratitude, inspired by my cute little jar, and made some realizations. Gratitude is so much more than just saying thank you. It means truly being attentive to the little things. I’m trying to practice walking around with grateful eyes, searching out the good things that happen each day that I so often let go unnoticed. The housemate that washed a dish I left in the sink or my building’s janitor mopping the floor for me after a kid spills apple juice everywhere. Recognizing these small things enables me to encourage the talents and kindness of the other person by affirming that the effort they made left a positive impact on me. Thank you.

Honestly, sometimes gratefulness is much more difficult than it sounds. It means purposely going out of my way to say thank you. It means paying attention and finding the beauty in each day. It means thanking God even when things are tough and difficult to understand. My little gratitude jar has given me the opportunity to collect and savor the good in a tangible way. And amazingly enough, I’ve found that by dwelling on the positives in each day, I am better equipped to tackle the negatives with an open mind and positive attitude. An attitude of gratitude.

Dust to Dust

Each Ash Wednesday, as the priest reminds me “Dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return” while tracing an ashen cross on my forehead, I feel a twinge of panic. It’s Lent again, shoot! What should I do this year? I’ve tried (and failed) so many Lenten sacrifices. To name a few…

Giving up sweets: 7th grade, forgot the next day.

Deleting my Facebook: senior year of high school, just spent all of the extra time watching Gilmore Girls.

Saying I’ll get up 20 minutes early every morning to pray or go to daily Mass: sophomore year of college, found myself hitting snooze for the 10th time a week into Lent.

Being a vegetarian: last year, got sick of the dining hall salad bar and after day four, caved and ate a cheese steak.

So often I attempt huge changes or sacrifices during Lent, hoping that the holy time of preparation will give me extra inspiration and that this year will be different. I’m pretty much always wrong. I give something up but lose motivation, or add something new without first making room for the addition to my routine. These failed attempts just end up leaving me feeling discouraged and unable to carry out promises to myself.

Rather than calling it quits on Lenten sacrifices I’ve decided that this year instead of aiming to make giant leaps, I’m going to use these 40 days to take baby steps toward my goals (and heaven). Throughout Lent I want to work on enacting some impactful changes that will outlive the 40 (or 3) days my sacrifices would last. I plan to start by taking stock of some of the habits I’m currently wrapped up in, both good and bad. It’s a basic idea-look at what I’ve got going, and enact strategies to decrease the bad in order to increase the good. Chances are that unless I find a bad habit to remove, I won’t make the time for a new positive addition. There are so many negative habits that I get caught up in, often just because I fail to stop and reflect on how I am doing and where my time is being spent.  That’s what Lent can be for. Lent is a chance to take stock of ourselves and root out the bad, ineffective, distracting and make room for the pure, life-giving, and enabling.

For example: one of my hurdles to overcome this Lent is running late (stop rolling your eyes mom, I’m serious!). I like to say that I don’t operate on clock time, and would be better suited for a culture like Spain where siestas are a way of life. In reality, I am just terrible at being on time. I tell myself to leave the house at 9:00 to be at work by 9:30 and out the door I roll, right on the dot, at 9:20 without fail. I can see all the terrible things that come from this habit, like people finding me unreliable, missing out on things, feeling rushed, the list goes on and on. Instead of making one of my classic large sweeping sacrifices like “this Lent I am going to give up running late, and be on time everywhere I go” I’m saying “this Lent, I am going to sacrifice checking my Facebook when I wake up in the morning and use those 5 extra minutes to get to work 5 minutes earlier”. Step by step, working toward where I want to be.

So if you’re anything like me and find Lenten sacrifices akin to your New Years resolution to hit the gym more often (still working on that one…) that goes awry on January 5th, try searching your daily routine to find some negative habits that could use a little scrambling. Maybe we can both use these 40 days to make adjustments and improve our overall well-being.

ashes

“Excuse me, I think you have something on your forehead” said everyone all day.

p.s.- This Lent I’m also participating in 40acts, a challenge that invites you to “Do Lent Generously”. Check it out!  http://www.40acts.org.uk/