Thursday, July 19, 2012

where everybody knows your name.

"I have always depended on the kindness of strangers..."
--Tennessee Williams in A Streetcar Named Desire 
One of the main values of Casserly House is to simply be a place where we welcome the stranger (this literally means anyone who steps through the front door); this emphasis on being welcoming is particularly meaningful considering the community that we serve.

The vast majority of adults that we work with are recent immigrants who speak very little English. Because of this, many of their daily interactions are often less than pleasant, as people are impatient, make unfair and incorrect judgments, and treat them with less respect than they deserve. As S. Nancy would say, "People just aren't nice to them." Likewise, for many of the kids that we work with, home is not always a welcoming place.

While I have always valued hospitality, this year has taken it to a whole new level, as I have had the privilege of learning to be with people and to be open to whoever walks through that front door. However, while I'm here to minister to them, it's ironic how frequently the people end up ministering to me. I cannot even begin to explain the kindness and generosity I have been shown. Frequently, I have ended up feeling like I am the one is being welcomed.

I am fully aware that my journey does not even begin to compare, but the fact remains that this year I have also been far away from home and family and all that I call dear. While my cultural adjustment has been significantly smaller, the students of Casserly House have never failed to welcome me and made me feel at home, especially at the beginning of the year when everything was new at Casserly House and in Boston.

One recent example of this: I was feeling slightly under the weather yesterday morning, so I went into work about two hours later than normal, meaning I arrived right in the middle of morning ESOL classes. Before I even stepped in the front door, I was greeted by a 7 year old on the front porch screaming my name and throwing herself at me to give me a hug. "We can go inside now!" she exclaimed. Apparently, she had been worried about me all morning and had been waiting for me to arrive on the front porch. The rest of the day continued in this vein, as numerous ESOL students and volunteers expressed their concern for me and how I was feeling (and seriously people, I was absolutely fine).

It's one of the beautiful ironies of this year that at my worst moments, when I feel the most disgruntled and disappointed with people, that someone will step in and express extraordinary kindness to me--even when I am in many ways still a stranger. On my most difficult days, the people of Casserly House have always been there to lift me up. It's been a rough week for me on a personal level, where I have frankly felt pretty disappointed by some individuals. But just when I begin to doubt, these folks step up and remind me how cared for I really am. I can almost feel God's comfort wrapping itself around me just by being in their presence.

My experience of community at Casserly House has been nothing less than beautiful, as I have witnessed people coming together regardless of national origin, cultures, religions, and backgrounds. On the best days, I take a moment to pause and think: this is the kingdom of God at work. This is what community looks like. This is how we are supposed to live.

The old saying is true: "It is in giving that we receive," and as I have learned to be welcoming, I have been welcomed. It is in these relationships (and so many others) that I have so frequently learned to find myself over the course of this year.
"In all the successes and failures, ups and downs, crazy and sane moments of my life, I have learned that I become who I am through my relationships with other human beings. And in those relationships, I uncover the tracks of the God's relationship with me." 
--Gary Smith, SJ

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

month eleven.

Towards the end of the school year, one of the After School kids (we'll call him J.) developed the habit of telling me that I was "breaking his heart." The reason for this was usually because I informed him that it was time to do his homework. J. was known for being just a little bit melodramatic.

The best was the day when he yelled, while walking out the front door of Casserly House, "MEGAN, why are you always BREAKING MY HEART?!" It was all I could do to not start laughing in his face.

Those who know me well will know that, like J., I harbor some over-dramatic tendencies. These days I feel a little like him when I think about the impending end of JVC. I just keep thinking, "JVC, why are you always breaking my heart?" Honestly, it's almost like JVC is trying to break up with me, and I just don't know how to let a good thing go.


In the spirit of Month Eleven, here's the letter I wish I could write:

JVC, why are you trying to end things? I've given you almost a year of my life--eleven months to be exact. (But let's be honest, I've really been infatuated with the idea of you for much longer.) It doesn't seem like it was that long ago that our relationship began, but in other ways it feels like a century has passed.

We have shared some great moments over the course of the year; we laughed, we cried, we sat around and talked all night about nothing. You have taken me from Baltimore to Blue Ridge to Boston... then up and down the East Coast, from Philly to Portland to DC to NYC and back again.

Of all of the gifts I have received, the people you introduced me to is what I cherish the most--the strangers who became my community mates who became some of my best friends, the ESOL students whose kindness and hospitality floored me, the kids who left footprints on my heart, the other members of JVC East who made my year so wonderful, even the people I didn't meet--the kids, clients, and women whose stories I just heard pieces of.

But I also gave up a lot for you--most importantly, being near my family, my friends, and my beloved Missouri. I worked for less than minimum wage, moved in with strangers in a city I had never set foot in, and committed to challenging myself on a daily basis. I gave up my pride, my comfort, and my preconceived notions.

I gave myself over to you, for better or for worse, crossed my fingers, and hoped that it would be for better--that I would be for better because of you. And I like to think that I am.

But now, after all that we've been through together--the good times and the bad times--what do you mean, you just expect me to leave? That in two weeks, you are going to "De-Orientate" me, send me to one last week of work, then you expect me to pack my bags, leave this house, and fly away from Boston?

Letting go isn't easy, and much like the way relationships can slowly, gradually decline, while I'm clinging to these last moments, part of me can already tell that you're slipping away. I'm slipping away.

Endings are so bittersweet. I always knew this wasn't forever, but I also thought that this year wouldn't end quite so quickly, that I wouldn't leave it so... attached. To Boston. To these four faces around the dinner table every night. To the life that I built for myself far away from all that I had loved.

Oh, JVC. By the end of this, I'm pretty sure you'll have ruined me.* 

month eleven.

the last week of after school. saying goodbye--for now. shoe shopping. reading tattoos on the heart in the common. 80's milkshake at max brenner chocolate. harbor islands trip. georgetown cupcake grand opening.

three day weekend: bunker hill day. a schedule change. seeing the kids in a new light. strawberry planting: part 2. newark weekend. visiting nyc: bryant park, a failed shake shack trip, the highline. sundresses and watermelon. the ironbound.

pre-camp craziness. jim's last day. dinner with some hometown faces. fro yo by fenway. cops vs. kids softball game.

pizza, gelato, and hanging out in the north end. nahant beach day. flying kites. sailors + sissy k's. early monrings at st. cecelia's. lots of job hunting.

fourth of july in boston. abby's week. asian food in cambridge. red sox-yankees at the bleacher bar. a day at the cape as a community. the start of summer camp.

* For those who don't know, JVC's really cheesy tagline is "Ruined for Life." Sorry I'm not sorry.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

tattoos on the heart.

I have read a lot of books this year, both fiction and non-fiction, but the book that has impacted me the most has easily been Fr. Greg Boyle's Tattoos On The Heart.

We were fortunate enough as a community to hear Fr. Greg speak in Boston about a month ago, and I read the book shortly after. Maybe the timing was just right, but his speech/the book gave a voice to so much of my experience this year through his message of kinship, solidarity, and dignity.

As I read, these two quotes in particular stood out:
Here is what we seek: a compassion that can stand in awe of what the poor have to carry rather than in judgement of how they carry it.
Sr. Elaine Roulette, the founder of My Mother's House in New York, was asked, ""How do you work with the poor?" She answered, "You don't. You share your life with the poor." It's basic as crying together. It's about "casting your lot" before ever becomes about "changing their lot."
This year has taught me so much, and one of the most important things has been this centrality of sharing stories, of knowing and being known, and putting a face on the abstract.

Needless to say, I plan on purchasing my own copy of Tattoos on the Heart after this year is over, and I have a feeling it will take up permanent residence on my bedside table. Out of the 30-ish books I have read so far this year, it is the one I most wish I could give a copy of to everyone I know.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

school's out for the summer.

After School is over. After School is over. Forever. (Well, for me at least.)

In fact, it has been for a few weeks, but I have been so busy preparing for our summer camp that I haven't had much time to process that I'm actually done. My main work-related responsibility for the year has ended. It's over. I finished. I did it. And that is such a bizarre feeling. There were days when I never thought I would get here... but by the grace of God, I did.

Honestly, the end of After School was so bittersweet. I got kind of emotional talking to the kids on the last day. Yes, I still have camp with most of them, and many of them stop by so often that I sometimes forget that the program is officially over... but it's still not quite the same.

So, I'm still very busy, but it's a different kind of busy. My whole rhythm at work has completely changed now that summer is really here.

To answer everyone's questions about what I am doing in the meantime: in short, a LOT. As mentioned, I have been preparing for and helping execute a two week summer camp for the kids that will happen July 9-20 (which I am really excited about!). I have also been continuing with my other duties, ie. helping with ESOL, keeping track of donations and writing thank you notes, updating the website/Facebook, and getting things ready for next year's JV.

I wish I had some more conclusive thoughts about the end of After School, but at this point my thought process basically goes something like this: "It's over... some how. Let's get through camp, and then I'll think about it."

I can't believe how close to the end I am. Wow.