Currently, Bayou 5 is driving through the gorgeous mountains of Pennsylvania, on our way to assist with relief for Hurricane Sandy. We’ve slept in four different states in the past five days, and I just figured out how to update this via smartphone.
“It is fall here now, my favorite of the four seasons. We get all four here, and they come at us under the doors, in through the windows. One morning you wake and need blankets; you take the fan out of the window to see clouds that mist out by midmorning, only to reveal a naked blue coolness like God yawning.
September is perfect Oregon. The blocks line up like postcards and the rosebuds bloom into themselves like children at bedtime. And in Portland we are proud of our roses; year after year, we are proud of them. When they are done, we sit in the parks and read stories into the air, whispering the gardens to sleep.
I remember the sweet sensation of leaving, years ago, some ten now, leaving Texas for who knows where. I could not have known about this beautiful place, the Oregon I have come to love, this city of great people, this smell of coffee and these evergreens reaching up into a mist of sky, these sunsets spilling over the west hills to slide a red glow down the streets of my town.
And I could not have known then that if I had been born here, I would have left here, gone someplace south to deal with horses, to get on some open land where you can see tomorrow’s storm brewing over a high desert. I could not have known then that everybody, every person, has to leave, has to change like seasons; they have to or they die. The seasons remind me that I must keep changing, and I want to change because it is God’s way. All my life I have been changing. I changed from a baby to a child, from soft toys to play daggers. I changed into a teenager to drive a car, into a worker to spend some money. I will change into a husband to love a woman, into a father to love a child, change houses so we are near water, and again so we are near mountains, and again to we are near friends, keep changing with my wife, getting our love so it dies and gets born again and again, like a garden, fed by four seasons, a cycle of change. Everybody has to change, or they expire. Everybody has to leave, everybody has to leave their home and come back so they can love it again for all new reasons.
I want to keep my soul fertile for the changes, so things keep getting born in me, so things keep dying when it is time for things to die. I want to keep walking away from the person I was a moment ago, because a mind was made to figure things out, not to read the same page concurrently.
Only the good stories have the characters different at the end than they were at the beginning. And the closest thing I can liken life to is a book, the way it streches out on paper, page after page, as if to trick the mind into thinking it isn’t all happening at once.
No, life cannot be understood flat on a page. It has to be lived; a person has to get out of his head, has to fall in love, has to memorize poems, has to jump off bridges into rivers, has to stand in an empty desert and whisper sonnets under his breath:
I’ll tell you how the sun rose
A ribbon at a time…
We get one story, you and I, and one story alone. God has established the elements, the setting and the climax, and the resolution. It would be a crime not to venture out, wouldn’t it?
It might be time for you to go. It might be time to change, to shine out. I want to repeat one word for you: leave.
Roll the word around on your tongue for a bit. It is a beautiful word, isn’t it? So strong and forceful, the way you have always wanted to be. And you will not be alone. You have never been alone. Don’t worry. Everything will still be here when you get back. It is you who will have changed.”
I read Don Miller’s Through Painted Deserts my junior year of college. This is a paraphrased passage from the author’s note of that book - which my friend Penny will tell you is the best part of any book. Mr. Miller’s words cemented in me a passion to explore, to seek, to find, and to change. These same words are part of the reason I’m sleeping on cots and living without potable water for the next months. They’re part of the reason I joined AmeriCorps, and even more so, part of the reason I won’t be returning to Michigan next summer. They’re part of the reason I’ll be walking across a stage in Vicksburg, MS in June, graduating from the first class of AmeriCorps NCCC FEMA Corps.
The past weeks have been rough. Expectations were shattered, tears shed, and good people decided this program wasn’t for them. It’s not what most of had expected or anticipated, especially after so much training and preparation. I questioned the program, what my purpose was within it, and if I could, or wanted to, make it through the next eight months. Which, of course, I can and will.
I don’t doubt I’ll face these questions again in the coming year. Earlier this week, as I sat in conversation with a friend, abstractly wondering why I was here, he asked me that question. Why was I here? Truly why - not to network, not to see the country, not to take a break from the real world. After considering for a few days, Don Miller’s words kept flowing through my mind. Change. Leave. Grow. I’m here to lead others as they grow in their leadership. I’m here to learn about my own abilities, and become a stronger person. I’m here to push myself, everyday, especially when I want to give up. I’m here to learn about grace, defeat, pain, loss, stress, budgets, teamwork, family, relationships, and what happens when you make your team do cheesy team builders in your 15-passenger van at 6:45am on the way to work. I’m also here to learn about my team, who they are, who they want to be, and how I can help them get there.
The change I see in myself is dynamic and permanent. There’s no going back to who I was two months ago, or two years ago, or even two days ago. As this year continues, I’m curious to see who I become. Two years ago, Don’s words began to reverberate within me - life can’t be understood flat on a page. I needed to explore that idea, and now I’m living it - no amount of classwork, school experience, leadership books, or program descriptions could have prepared me for this year, nor could they have provided me with the knowledge and understanding I’ve gained in the past three months.
Today marks the 4th day of the 1st week of our 1st official spike. I haven’t posted in over a month, mostly because of time constraints and difficulty writing my thoughts down in a coherent manner. There is always so much going on, I’m grateful to keep up with any personal life stuff, and as great as it would be to document this experience consistently, blogging is pretty far down on the priority list.
Between then and now, we’ve completed CTI training, and were officially inducted into the AmeriCorps NCCC FEMA Corps program. On Thursday the 13th of September, the first ever 230 members of FEMA Corps listened to Deputy Administrator Rich Serino as he explained the rapid evolutionary process of FEMA Corps, and expressed his admiration and excitement for the first class.
That night, I slept about 45 minutes between packing, cleaning, and general coordinating before driving away from Vicksburg at 6am. It’s become home to me, and it was difficult leaving, knowing we wouldn’t return until the middle of December. We spent the day driving to Anniston, AL - stopping for lunch at Chipotle with Bayou 1 -, where, for the next three days, all 210 Corps Members went through FEMA in-processing before beginning the next stages of training.
The FEMA training facility in Anniston remained home for two weeks, which helped the transition from Vicksburg to spike. The night before we finally had to say goodbye, all 21 team leaders lit paper lanterns and sent them up with our hopes for the year, as well as all of the stress, discouragement, and worries we struggled with over the past 2.5 months. I wish I had more eloquent words to explain how strongly I feel for these wonderful people. Gaining an entire family in such a short period of time is not something that can be easily understood - I know I would not have been able to fully grasp what it means to suddenly have 20 people who would do anything, go anywhere, listen, vent, laugh, cry, and take off their pants and start singing Adele, had I not lived it.
After Anniston, we were sent to Baton Rouge, LA, to work out of the Joint Field Office currently working on recovery for Hurricane Issac. We’re living in an Initial Operating Facility, which consists of a hallway with rooms of varying sizes, outdoor showers, no potable water on site, and one microwave for 40 people. *Sidenote: 4 teams are stationed at the JFO in Baton Rouge* We’re now finally seeing the NCCC side of FEMA Corps, and it’s exactly what we needed to remind ourselves of our purpose and mission here.
Next post: Anniston details and thoughts on life
While many of these updates include what I have done and continue to do through this experience, the thoughts and words of this blog may or may not share the same views as CNCS, AmeriCorps, FEMA, and/or other members, staff or volunteer organizations that are involved in projects with various AmeriCorps programs throughout the nation.
None of my writings have been monitored or read before posting, nor have they been approved by an affiliate of AmeriCorps. These thoughts and opinions are my own.
For more information on AmeriCorps, explore their website at AmeriCorps.gov.
We’ve been without Internet for a few weeks, which hasn’t been an issue outside of my inability to blog. It’s pretty replenishing to be without constant contact and a source of immediate answers, news, and amazon prime. I’ve been checking emails on my phone once a day, and making/postponing an increasing number of skype dates. We’ve been fully immersed in training with Corps Members, putting in pretty consistent 15-hour days, and running mostly on adrenaline and diet coke. The CMs arrived last week, and were placed into temporary teams for the first two and a half weeks of this month long training. On Wednesday, the TLs plan a huge permanent team reveal where everyone meets the people they’ll spend most of the next ten months working, living, and socializing with.
My temporary team (yeah Bayou 5!) is great. I’m a little concerned that somehow our team motto has become “Bayou 5 – no shame!”, but I also don’t really want to question it for fear of its orgin. I couldn’t ask for better, more engaged, enthusiastic, passionate people. It’s been great getting to know them, and learning along with them how to feed 10 people on $4.75/day, see the same faces everyday, and keep each other entertained through 8 hours of daily training in classrooms. The past two weeks have forced me to consider my leadership style, the complicated boundaries between team leader and friend, and the importance of respect, communication, and active listening. Everyday I find myself almost physically feeling some kind of personal growth and a stronger working understanding of the world and my place in it. I’ve come find that I want to fail. I want to make mistakes, be wrong, occasionally second-guess, and make a well-intentioned poor decision. I want to learn from these so-called mistakes and failures, to grow, and figure out more precisely who I am.
A good friend once brought up the subject of why we end up in the places and with the people we do. He explained his philosophy that there is something we’re supposed to take or learn from each experience in our lives. I’ve thought about that quite a bit, reflecting on my life in college, and my life now with AmeriCorps. The dichotomy between the two experiences is huge, and it’s interesting to consider how much and what I can take away from each of these very different chunks of my life.
Skip ahead a week from the first half of this post, and we’ve made it through Hurricane Issac and a powerless three days. In MS this means ridiculous humidity, spoiled food, tons of great bonding time, and some wonderful impromptu flashlight lit concerts. Also, a few thousand bottles of water and a lot of peanut butter sandwiches. Other than the power and a couple pairs of shoes that are still soaked, Issac did not cause too much damage or set us back in our training schedule. Living without electricity was actually pretty nice, and the TLs considering just keeping it off for the rest of CTI (Corps Training Institute), until we realized how hot the fourth floor gets without A/C.
On Wednesday we revealed our permanent teams and FEMA specialist positions, and I am so pumped for the next year! Bayou 5 (or Cinco de Bayou), is comprised of 10 passionate, engaged, and motivated people – I could not want or ask for a better group of people to live, work, and learn about. We’ll be working in Mass Care shelters and coordinating volunteer agencies during disaster relief/recovery efforts.
This week we’re heading to Ole’ Miss for some team bonding at their ropes course and an Ameri-lympics competition, as well as a service project and practice for our actual spike assignments. Next week brings our final three days of training, our induction ceremony, and then we’re off to Aniston, AL for two weeks of intensive training at the FEMA training facility there. From there we’ll head off to our first spike project. AmeriCorps is the best (excuse the superlative) experience I’ve had so far in life, and I am so excited to see what comes next!
Again, not a ton of great photos. High ropes course, plus a shot of the BAYOU UNIT! I’ll be leading Bayou 5. So great.
After a few weeks without a stable internet connection other than my smarter-than-me smartphone, a new post is finally going up! So much has happened in the past few weeks.
Last weekend we took a team bonding trip to New Orleans and spent a couple of days exploring the city. It was my first hostel experience. We stayed at the Marquette House, and basically had an entire house outfitted with 20 bunk beds for the weekend. On Saturday a few of us took a walking tour the Garden District and French Quarter, while we literally ate our way through the city. Beignets at Cafe Du Monde, gumbo and jumbalaya at Gumbo Pot, snowballs at the Satchmo Festival, ‘gator at the first restaurant to open after Katrina, Cochon, and a few of Juan’s Flying burritos. Among all the food, we also checked out a few famous statues of Andrew Jackson, the French Market, the Satchmo Jazz Festival, and the Katrina Museum. As a team leader preparing to work with disaster survivors, the museum provided some necessary perspective. We closed the weekend with some live jazz on Frenchmen Street, and made it back to Vicksburg Sunday afternoon.
On Monday we set out for a high/low ropes course at a local YMCA camp. We spent the day working in our units (yeah, Bayou!), and metaphorically navigating situations we might face on our teams. From there we departed for a mini-spike trip in Baton Rouge, where I had the opportunity to serve as the Team Leader of the TL’s. After four days of leading Team Green, I understand how to leadership theories into leadership practices, and I feel more than prepared for my actual team to arrive tomorrow. Shout out to my Team Green family - I could not ask for better people to work, live, and spend the next ten months with!
On our mini-spike, we spent two and a half days working with the Baton Rouge Habitat for Humanity. It was amazing. We met so many wonderful, dedicated, passionate people, and I feel more and more like I know what direction my life will take. Serving is kind of addicting. Especially when you are able to work closely with people who are engaged, encouraging, and caring to an extreme. At the end of two days, we had completely painted the interior and exterior of one home, and completed most of the framing for a second.
We returned to Vicksburg Thursday afternoon, and have spent the past three and a half days finishing up Team Leader training and preparing for the Corps Training Institute (CTI), which kicks off tomorrow. By late tomorrow night, all 219 Corps members will have arrived and AmeriCorps NCCC Class 19 FEMA Corps will officially begin!