Sunday, December 9, 2012

Advent Reflection: Action in Waiting

Each year, the Little Village community of Amate House hosts an evening of Advent reflections.  We adapt and abbreviate the Hispanic tradition of Las Posadas--a re-enactment of Mary and Joseph's journey to Bethlehem--knocking on doors and being turned away until finally being received at the inn's stable.  Traditionally, Las Posadas is a nine day novena, representing the nine months of Mary's pregnancy.  For our purposes, we condensed the event into one evening full of praying, singing, and reflecting.  At each of our nine stops around our neighborhood, one of my housemates read their reflection on their Amate experience thus far and how it relates to the four (unofficial) themes of Advent:  Waiting, Preparing, Receiving, and Rebirth.  Below you'll find my reflection on the first theme.  Sorry you can't experience it with Mexican sweet bread, ginger snaps, and hot chocolate the way everyone else did! :)


"Here Jesus is speaking of his disciples and their preparation for his coming.  Take note that God's kingdom is not formed by any human discovery or intention, however daring and noble, but by the coming of Christ.  ... It is remarkable that not only God, creator of heaven and earth, but also God's people must be a part of this plan. ... There must be people who stand by the door and listen for him and who open it quickly when he knocks.  Workers, not slackers, are dressed for service.  ... God has work that has to be done in work clothes, not in one's Sunday best.  As long as God's kingdom has to be fought for, it is more important to be dressed for work--ready for action..."  -- Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt

In many ways, my college experience was a realization of just how much this world expects us to have everything figured out, or at least pretend we do.  You no sooner pick a major than people begin to bombard you with that dreaded question, “What are you going to do with that?”  Four years were plenty enough time to realize that the world’s perspective aims at knowing who you’re going to be, more than it aims at truly knowing who you are.  For me, this is the difference between those from Blumhardt’s quote who go around wearing their Sunday best, cover model souls with painted faces, and those who are dressed for work, flecked with the smatterings of nitty gritty daily life. 

I think I came into this year of Amate dressed in my Sunday best, with my eye on the person I could be rather than courageously vulnerable, willing to be seen for exactly who I am, faults and all.  As a result, I became something of a self-development junkie, never satisfied with who I am at present, never willing to fully recognize my gifts and talents because all I can see is just how full of holes and cracks I am, how much this part of me needs mending, how much that part of me needs tweaking, and how little that part of me holds up to its potential.

I realized early on—during Orientation, in fact—as my new community began to trade out their best Sunday dresses and suits for muddy shoes and well-worn t-shirts, just what my greatest challenge would be this year.  I would have to slow down and re-orient my perspective so that I no longer had my eyes set on the woman I could be, and God’s will as it would manifest itself in the future, but rather seeing myself clearly and honestly, and living that authentically:  seeing God’s will not in who I would be, but in who I have already become over my twenty-two years of life.  I would have to recognize myself as God’s beloved and be patient and loving towards myself as I had rarely been before, acknowledging, in the words of Carl Rogers:  “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”

I had to let go.  I knew I had to be active in my waiting, so I chose to live that paradox, to lose myself in service of others to find myself.  Nowadays, because of Amate, my active waiting looks like dancing like children with a grown man in the middle of the Brookfield Zoo because I took the time to learn what it takes to make his day.  My active waiting looks like deconstructing and broadening my understanding of service to include the slow, laborious cultivation of trust and relationships with elderly who don’t always remember me from one day to the next.  My active waiting looks like pushing myself to the limits of my concept of love to admit that I don’t have all of the answers and inviting my community to share their truth and reality with me.  My active waiting looks like acknowledging the ugly habits I thought I’d left behind as they buck and kick their way into my new life, and allowing my community to hold me accountable for their effects on our shared life.  My active waiting looks like realizing my own dignity and worth as I yield to my community’s boundless love and affection. 

My active waiting is not picture perfect.  It’s messy and wild, and sometimes a little crude.  But it’s more me than I have been for quite some time.  All it took was the letting go and giving in to the kind of faith that believes God’s will is here and now, not just tomorrow; the kind of faith that believes that you shouldn’t search for the meaning of life, but for the meaning you can give life.  You.  Exactly as you are.  Dirty work clothes and all.

During Fall Retreat, I picked up a book by Henri Nouwen from the Amate library.  My forward-looking self urged me to try to read the entire book in one afternoon.  But the preface to the book stopped me in my tracks.  It cautioned the reader to read in small doses, to read the book the way it was written:  one day at a time, one page at a time.  I chastised myself for wanting to speed ahead and lose the weight of the words about to grace my lips.  I’m glad I slowed down, because if I hadn’t, the following quote might not have stayed with me the way it does now.  I might not have given it the chance to permeate to the far reaches of my heart, those little spaces I rarely even let God touch.  It said:  “God is faithful to God’s promises.  Before you die, you will find the acceptance and the love you crave.  It will not come in the way you expect.  It will not follow your needs and your wishes.  But it will fill your heart and satisfy your deepest desire.  There is nothing to hold on to but this promise.  Everything else has been taken away from you.  Cling to that naked promise in faith.  Your faith will heal you.”

Anytime my expectations of myself and future-focused perspective start to cloud my vision and bring me to my knees, I turn to that quote and let it bring back a small taste of the peace it brought me that day.  I pray that this year will fortify in me the kind of faith that believes in the promise of today, and encourages me to find the meaning I can bring to the hand I am dealt each day of my life—whether it be at work, at home, or in the quiet of my own heart.

I expect my self-knowledge to be a lifelong journey, a waiting game of its own, but not a passive one.  It will be spent as intentionally as possible, like the disciples awaiting Christ’s coming.  For me, Christ’s coming will be like God tracing out a constellation from the brightest stars of my life, and delighting in watching my face as suddenly it all comes clear, as suddenly, all of my “I don’t know’s” and “perhaps’s” and “we’ll see’s” spell out a full portrait of who God created me to be.  Until then, sure, I’m waiting.  But I’m not waiting in passivity.  Rather, I’m pouring my heart into the people around me each day, deconstructing the world’s claims on my understanding of myself, and being courageous enough in my vulnerability and faith to trust that my dreams will find me and my stars will align as best serves His kingdom—one day at a time.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Community Night Gone Right AKA Kara's Owner's Manual

I may have explained this before, but each Wednesday evening in our program is designated as a  Community Night.  This is a night set apart each week for us to gather as a community for engagement, discussion, education, or just plain fellowship and fun.  We all leave work about an hour earlier than usual to get the ball rolling by 5pm blunt (we could be a little more punctual, eh, LV?).  Each community night includes a business meeting (scheduling for the next week or weeks to come, updates on house budget and transportation, reflection on the status of community life, etc.)  Following the business meeting, we have dinner as usual (though perhaps more rushed and chaotic). 

After dinner, the night’s theme begins.  Some weeks we travel into the city to hear a speaker.  Some weeks we do service together as an Amate community within the larger Chicago community.  Some weeks we gather with the other two houses to learn more and delve deeper into the five tenets of our program.  Some weeks we, as a house, design our own community night.  And some weeks our community nights are more community-specific and are held in the quirkiness of our own home.

Last week’s was one of those.

I have to admit that when we first cozied up in our second floor community room after dinner, I could sense that very few of us were excited to reorient our brains to focus on whatever we were going to be presented with.  I definitely was not. 

Just the same, our house coordinator, Ali, began explaining our task for the night.  She held up a mostly-blank white sheet of 8½x11 printer paper with the typed heading “_____’s Owner’s Manual.”  I think I actually felt the group’s internal groan, but I might be projecting.  I tend to do that. ;)

“What you’re going to do,” Ali said, “is create an owner’s manual for yourself.  You’ll write it in the third person, outlining the highlights of your personality, warning signs for moods, bad habits, joys, reactions to conflict, pet peeves, areas of improvement, and so on.  You’re going to take half an hour to write up your manual, and then return to the group and share it.  I’ll collect them and make copies to redistribute to all of you.” (She probably said this in a much peppier, cuter, and Ali-esque way, but 1) it’s been a week, so sue me if I don’t remember verbatim 2) I’m paraphrasing and 3) this is my blog so I can misquote and misappropriate as I please. Kidding.  I think.)

We each solemnly collected our blank owner’s manual from her with all of the enthusiasm of someone reporting to jury duty.  Per Ali’s suggestion, we each retreated to different corners of the house where we felt most comfortable writing.  I returned to my Blog Headquarters aka my bed, and started writing.

I shouldn’t, but will, speak for my housemates when I say that we were entirely wrong to not want to put in the effort for that night’s assignment.  Forty-five minutes later, Ali tapped on my bedroom door and informed me that she was giving us another half hour to work on our manuals because most of us had become so involved in the project that we hadn’t finished even the first of the three prompts.  Even after all of that time, when we reconvened on the second floor, some of us, myself included, were still scrambling to squeeze in a few more bullet points.  (I may have also been totally disrespectful to some of my roommates and added a few when they were sharing their manual aloud and I thought nobody would notice.  I willfully cede a heaping handful of community life points for that one.)

It was humbling, exciting, nerve-wracking, and entertaining to share all of our manuals with one another.  I am always exceedingly impressed with and awed by my roommates’ sense of self-awareness.  It may be true of the other two houses, too, but I feel as if my community is made up of a group of really extraordinary 20-somethings.  My roommates were all so honest and forthcoming with their misgivings and so hopeful and willingly vulnerable about their dreams and areas of self-improvement.  I was the last to share that night, and I remember feeling as if I had no right to speak after hearing such accurate portraits of each of my roommates from their very own mouths. 
I ended the evening with a sense of being honored to share a year of each of these peoples’ lives.  I may not always understand them or agree with them or want to be around them (the same could be said of me, I’m absolutely sure), but I feel privileged to be learning what it truly means to love alongside and from them.

Below, for your reading pleasure, is my very own Owner’s Manual. I hope those of you who know me well find it to be an accurate snapshot of me.  Feel free to propose bullet points that I missed if you have any, especially as regards my uglier qualities—I’m human so I might’ve sugarcoated mine a little.  I also hope that those of you who don’t know me as well—or at all!—may find this manual enlightening as you continue to read my blog this year (if you so choose!).

Kara’s Owner’s Manual
Becoming Familiar With Me  This section describes the highlights of your personality.  Think about what drives you, both at work and at home.  If you wish, borrow words or phrases from your Strengths report.  Include your greatest talents, as well as your blind spots and failures.
+  WARNING:  Kara is a sensitive introvert and is likely to react to her own and others’ emotions/feelings with extremes (read:  tears). 
+  Kara finds comfort in silence and does not need to talk to enjoy your company.
+  Kara loves to feel busy and must accomplish something measurable each day to feel at peace.  That said, Kara is also always in a constant state of self-evaluation and is never fully satisfied with her personal development; this is true of all aspects of her life:  self-perception, physical, emotional, vocational, spiritual, relational, etc. 
+  Kara loves to learn new things and will often start up new and involved projects; however, Kara is also a perfectionist, and will quickly lose interest in a project when she realizes she’s not naturally gifted at it. 
+  Kara works best under pressure, though she constantly seeks quiet and stability. 
+  Kara tends to be very concerned with meeting expectations—her own and those of others.
+  Kara is perpetually concerned with inclusivity and will go out of her way to achieve it for anyone but herself.
+  Kara is terrified of her ability to hurt other people, but is comfortable standing up for her values and beliefs, even if it makes her feel isolated.
+  Kara thinks very hard about just about anything she wants to say before she says it, which is one reason for why she often prefers writing to talking.

Cautions  This section shares insights on your reaction to stressful situations and confrontations, as well as pet peeves and red flags that would be helpful for your housemates to know.
+  Kara tends to feel other people’s stress acutely, but often fails to recognize her own until she’s overwhelmed.  When this threshold is reached, she will likely have a short meltdown.  Give her some space to commiserate and think for a moment, and soon she’ll be back on her feet, tackling the problem one step at a time.
+  Kara finds group interactions emotionally taxing but rewarding.  She will likely insert one or two comments when she feels comfortable, but otherwise will be quiet and observant, feeling out the room.  If Kara chooses to share a story or thought that requires a whole group’s attention on her, you can be certain she feels she’s sharing something important to her.
+  Kara tends to work through most of her problems on her own, but may come to you if she’s seeking a new way to be challenged or to be held accountable for a decision.  If she asks for your opinion on a situation in her life, it means she’s looking for someone she respects to help her pin down a new goal, especially as regards her relationships with others.
+  While Kara loves to write and appreciates all things of the written word, Kara detests holding conversations via text message or instant messengers like facebook chat.  She feels as though these media, while useful, do not do the least bit of justice to a conversation that can be held in person or to the experience of sharing time and space with another person face-to-face.  She prefers to use these methods of communication only for quick hello’s, silly updates, or to let you know she’s thinking of you.  She will, however, use both text and facebook chat if no other option is readily available. (Be warned that this is one of Kara’s soapbox issues.)
+  Caution:  do not interrupt Kara when you see her reading or writing.  If you need her help or need to speak with her at these moments, it’s best not to just start talking to her.  It takes her a moment to switch gears (especially emotionally).  Simply ask if you can have her attention for a moment.  Once she has closed her book or put down her pen or looked away from her computer, feel free to share what you need to share or ask what you need to ask.

Final Note  This section declares the areas that you are actively working to improve.  Think about your personal goals for the year, and also look at the “Ideas for Action” in your Strengths report for helpful suggestions.
+  Kara is working on her ability to combat her restlessness and constant need for forward motion in her personal and spiritual development.
+  Kara views everything as a work in progress—even you!—and is learning how to appreciate things and people for what and who they are at the present moment while still finding opportunities to (hopefully) graciously share ways she thinks you could grow.
+  In her pursuit of perfection, Kara tends to be very hard on herself.  She is working on being less self-deprecating.  However, Kara also really struggles with pridefulness, and can also have ugly moments of self-righteousness.  She actually would appreciate someone having the guts to call her out—gently but firmly—on these moments because it will lend to her conviction surrounding personal development.  As a result of the aforementioned, Kara struggles with compliments and is learning to accept them graciously.
+  Kara can be impatient with people who don’t know how to or refuse to express their thoughts and feelings.  She is learning how not to put words in others’ mouths and/or force them to share before they would have done on their own.
+  Kara values honesty above all else and will answer any question you ask in sincerity.  She’s not a private person just because she’s quieter than most.  She just refuses to demand attention in the event that you might need that time more than she.  She is learning how to advocate for herself.
+  Kara is always worried about imposing on other peoples’ time and emotions and is slowly coming to believe that her thoughts, feelings, and ideas are deserving of time, respect, and acknowledgement, too.

Hope you survived all of that!  Thanks for reading. :)  Your support and the time you take to read my musings mean more than you could possibly imagine.  Until next time!

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Made to Honor

I wonder what you see when you see this picture.

Do you see a young girl making her way down the aisle to witness the marriage of her best friend?
I do too.  But I hear so much more echoing within me when I look at this picture.  After all, the old adage says:  a picture is worth a thousand words.  I’d say that’s fairly apt; this picture is full to bursting with words written deep within my heart. 
When I look at this picture, I see a girl who is walking with quiet purpose towards her God, her patient lover who waits, smiling radiantly, at the altar.

But she has a burning question within her soul:  is her God waiting there to hand her to one of His beloved sons?  Or is He waiting there for her to accept the gentle invitation of His open arms?

This walk—this journey—transpires beneath the watchful gaze and silent support of the one woman who knew how to say an unequivocal “Yes” to the will of her God.  The girl considers the bouquet of flowers in her grip and acknowledges her desire to do as her best friend will do shortly and place her bouquet, the offering of her love and life’s gifts, at the feet of her Heavenly Mother—the first lover, follower, and teacher of her beloved Jesus.
A young boy runs headlong towards his parents just out of the camera’s sight, and the girl seems to wonder if the children that bring such joy to her will be her own, or if she is called to be a mother to the unwanted and abandoned, to the children of others. The girl wonders where her heart fits in the coming of her Beloved’s kingdom. 

She wonders if she will ever meet a man who will strive with all of his might to love her as God does.  She wonders if she will have to seek God’s love and Truth without a warm hand holding her own, guiding her.

She wonders if she will ever loosen her grip on the fetters of broken trust and lost love that plague her weary soul.  She wonders if she will ever stop resisting her God’s gentle touch, untangling her from those chains.

She is full of wonder.

But she is not waiting. 
She is fighting her demons, learning to believe that she truly is God’s beloved, that He has every intention to fulfill His promises in, through, and for her.

She is learning to see herself through His eyes.

She is wrestling with her fear.

She is walking towards her God through it all, anchoring her heart to His, not despite how heavy and burdened hers is, but because He knows and bears that weight and burden with and for her.

She seeks her God joyfully, lovingly, and, most significantly:  hopefully.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Expectations & Community, Honestly

Honesty has been on my mind a lot lately, especially in terms of this blog.  For example:  how do I be honest with all of you about my experience without violating the privacy of my housemates and/or the agency I am working for?

In all honesty (there it is again), that one question has kept me from writing for a few weeks.  That and, you know, acclimating to a new 40-hour work week, a new job, a new community, a new bedroom, a new diet, a new city…I could go on if you’d like. ;)

Being serious, though, I’m not sure how to write this blog with integrity if there’s so much that I cannot share.  I can’t share much about the clients I work with at the agency.  I can’t share much about my housemates’ personal lives.  I can’t share much, honestly, about my opinions and experiences thus far because they’re either wrapped up in the lives of my housemates or of my clients and co-workers.
But here’s what I feel I can share, and share honestly about the past month and a half:

Even surrounded by eight other seemingly omnipresent people, I have been lonely often.

Perhaps just as often, I have felt as if one or another of my roommates truly cares about me as an individual.

I have had to fight for the acknowledgment and respect of my personal boundaries as far as being an introvert goes.  Admittedly, I have been less adamant about asserting personal boundaries on other topics.  To say the very least, it’s difficult to demand or ask for respect of your personal values.

Because I naturally gravitate towards some of my housemates more than others, I have driven myself crazy with worry over how to authentically become closer to those I don’t.  But every opportunity I have made and taken to spend time with each of my housemates has been more than meaningful to me.

I have not shared many facets of my belief system and personality with my housemates at large for fear of persecution or my own inability to articulate my beliefs, thoughts, and feelings clearly.

I have been affirmed in love and truth daily by my housemates, especially in cherished moments around the dinner table as we each shared joys and sorrows from our days.

I have seen my pride rear its ugly head more times than I would like to count.

All in all, very little of my experience here has been what I expected. 

When I start a new journey, or dream about starting a new journey, I always somehow seem to forget that the same person I am now will be the girl she has been all along and will be the girl present when that decision comes to bear:  faults and all.

I seem foolishly to have thought I would naturally be more patient, more understanding, more kind, more loving, more intentional, more forgiving…you name it.
In short, I somehow expected the ideal Kara Lynn Olenick (the one who is compassionate but speaks her mind, the one who doesn’t mind picking up her roommates at all hours of the night from the L station, the one who will happily do all of the dishes left in the sink, the one who doesn’t chicken out of every radical opportunity for growth she dreams up, on and on) to be the one ringing the doorbell to our Amate home in Little Village back at the end of July.

But the reality is this:  that’s not the girl that showed up on the doorstep here a month ago.  And thank goodness.  Because that girl wouldn’t have had any learning or growing to do anyway.  And, perhaps it’s not clear to you, but it sure is to me:  I have what seems to be an insurmountable bit of learning and growing to do.  Thankfully, I’ve got prayer, the grace of God, and my community on my side, which allow me to approach each new day with more hope than trepidation, more excitement than dread, more intentionality than passivity.
Living in intentional community is hard work.  Some days I feel like seeking out a divorce lawyer and filing for irreconcilable differences.  But, as far as I’m concerned, giving up is not an option.  So we will work through all of this not only out of necessity, but because we want to, because we have a vision for love and what it sincerely can be—can mean—among nine volunteers with vast differences.  So we will work to treat each others’ misgivings hopefully and be mindful of our similarities as well as our differences, and learn daily that both can be beautiful and life-giving.

I suppose, then, in that way, this experience thus far has been exactly what I wanted and expected:  the most worthwhile challenge I have ever undertaken.  I will not walk out of this house at the end of the year the same as I entered it—I will be more myself, God willing:  more the girl I am meant to be.  The story of this year as I share it with you will make an indelible impression on me. 

I sincerely hope you are all finding ways to take a lead role in a similar story in your own lives.

Until next time,

Kara  < 3

PS.  The Amate Website has been updated to include photographs and contact information for the thirty-three of us in the program this year!  Check it out!

Monday, August 13, 2012

An Honest Interlude

I’m going to interrupt your regularly scheduled programming to be honest with all of you.  Not that I haven’t been honest up until this point, but I feel as if I’ve been very “everything is hunky dory!” since I’ve started this blog. 
And that’s simply not true.  Tonight, I feel plagued by privilege.
It will seem unrelated at first, but, as usual, I ask that you bare with me.

As of tonight, I have killed 31 spiders in my room since I moved in.  Thirty-one!  And that’s only the ones I noticed.  There are definitely three more within my sight right now that I just haven’t had the heart to smack mercilessly with the pair of shoes I’ve designated for killing all spiders (flat bottoms with no ridges, if you must know). 
At first, when it was only around fifteen spiders total stretched over the initial clean and the first two weeks, I thought:  “This is kind of funny!”  But tonight?  Upping my total by 7 in the last half hour?  Now I’m angry.  Honestly, I almost started crying.
And no.  It’s not because there are spiders in my room and I’m irrationally afraid of them.  Although that is true. 
I’m angry because I felt sorry for myself for living in these conditions.

I made myself sick just writing that sentence. 
I know life can seem to be all about context and perspective; and given that I’ve lived in a very clean and sterile environment for my entire life I shouldn’t be shocked that I’m responding this way to living in a room meant for storage that’s infested with all kinds of critters and bugs I can’t name. 
But here’s the thing. 
Fifty yards from where I comfortably lay my head down every night, a homeless couple climbs through a gash in the chain link fence on the opposite side of our street where they spend the night under a make-shift tent built of cardboard boxes and dirty old sheets.  I know because I’ve seen them.  I know because I stare every time we drive past and park our car just fifteen feet from their “home.”  I know because I feel guilty even sitting in a vehicle.  I know because I’m afraid to talk to them.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that my heart is really heavy tonight with the realization of my own privilege.  Coming to Amate was, in part, about learning to live simply.  But my musty spider-strewn room feels like a palace.  Or at least it should.  Still, I’m struggling.  I’m feeling sorry for myself when really, I should be counting my blessings and trying harder to find ways to right the injustice of homelessness. 

Quite honestly, my own privilege breaks my heart.  And for me, I think that’s a good thing.  I want my heart to break the way God’s does when He sees the living conditions of so many neglected people.

But I don’t want to stop there.  I want that breaking to actually motivate me to do something other than sit in my warm, dry room typing on a $1,500 computer that I don’t even feel like I deserve.

Perhaps guilt or conviction (or whatever I choose to call this awful pressure-in-my-chest, lump-in-my-throat, stinging eyes feeling) isn’t what should motivate me to change and to do what I can to change this world. 

But I’ll take what I can get.

Because I need to change.

And I honestly believe the world needs me to change, too.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

A Play-by-Play of the First Week of My Journey

Hi again, everybody!

As of Sunday, I have been with my community for a full week!  How crazy is that?  Time is flying here, packed full morning to evening with intentional conversation, laughter, dreams, solemnities, and so much more.  Saturday was the first day we had off from our two-week orientation.  Some of my roommates went out to listen to Lollapalooza outside the gates, some went to the gym and took care of banking, one spent time with his girlfriend, another went to a wedding in Wisconsin.  Before beginning this post, I went to the library to get a library card with another roommate.  We each just took the day to rest and plug into our own interests and needs.  I think we all breathed a little sigh of relief when we realized we had Saturday free.
Before things get even crazier here, I want to take this opportunity to fill you in on what the first week has been like.  The first thing to note, however, is that I’ve only directly mentioned my blog to two roommates at this point, and I have yet to feel out how everyone individually feels about it.  So, for the time being, I’m going to try to write simply from my own experience and not to refer to anyone by name for the sake of their privacy.

This is going to be a doozy of a post because there’s much to tell.  Without further ado:
Tuesday, July 24th  -  Friday, July 27th
After an incredible sending-off meal at home Tuesday night (Dad and Mom made a traditional German meal of schnitzel and spaetzle!), I packed late into the night.  Wednesday morning, my mom and I packed the last few of my things into our family Suburban and got on the road by 8:20.  Our plan for the day was to drive about 7 hours to her parents’ house in Johnstown, PA to spend the night before continuing West towards Illinois.  When we arrived in Johnstown, we spent the day with my grandparents, great aunt and uncle, my Aunt Amy, Aunt Terri, Uncle Roger, and cousins Patrick, Abby, John, and Emily.  That time was especially wonderful for me because Abby (whom I often refer to as my soul sister because she’s one of those people I just connect with on a level much deeper than I can even understand or explain—a kindred spirit) is entering her two years of cloistered novitiate with the Sister Servants of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus today (August 4th).  When we had originally made our travel plans, it looked as if we would have just missed seeing one another, but once my mom and I re-arranged things, it all worked perfectly.  It was nothing short of a blessing to get to see her again, especially given that it will be at least two years until I see her next. 

Mom and I left the next day after lunch, this time heading about 4 hours to Madison, Ohio to stay the night with my Aunt Wendy, Uncle Wayne, cousins Joey and Sarah, and their crazy sweet labradoodle Zooey.  We went out to dinner with the family and then returned to their house where my mom showed them all of the pictures she and my dad took while in Rome and Assisi for their 25th wedding anniversary.  When my mom took a phone call after sharing pictures, I had a few minutes of wonderful conversation with my Aunt Wendy about the importance of making time to spend one-on-one with God every day.  Her words were both humbling and inspiring, especially as I consider how hard it has been to make that time here living under a fairly demanding schedule with eight other people.

Finally, on Friday, my mom and I drove the last 6 hours to Chicago.  We had a fun initiation to the traffic of Chicago shortly after entering the city.  With the GPS (which my mom calls Wanda) repeatedly declaring that we only had 10 miles to go, we spent about a half hour sitting in traffic just past the Skyway.  I was a jumbled combination of excited and anxious at this point, so I probably drove a little more aggressively than necessary at that point—sorry Mom! :)

We pulled up to my new home at around 3:30pm Chicago time, having completely forgotten about the time change until just a few moments before.  We were met on the sidewalk by one of last year’s volunteers from South House, who called my house coordinator and teased me about how much I brought (so much for living simply, huh?).  My mom and I got a tour of the house (although I had been there before and mostly was preoccupied with the following:  1.  Saying hello to my new housemates whom had already moved in that morning 2.  Trying to remember what they had shared about themselves in their e-mails and 3. Wondering if my room would be in the basement or on the second or third floors). 

I have to admit that, selfishly, I had been hoping not to be in the basement.  But, lo and behold, here I am now, writing this from what I have affectionately dubbed The Dungeon.  I actually don’t mind it so much because despite not having AC, it’s cooler than the first floor, and my room is fairly tiny, which is humbling and helps me to remember that many of my neighbors don’t even get one of these tiny rooms to themselves and that some of them don’t even have homes at all.  Not to mention, once I brought all of my things in and set them up, it’s actually pretty cozy!  I’ve grown accustomed to finding spiders in every nook and cranny and have begun tallying how many I’ve killed (16, plus some creepy centipede-like bug that crunched when I stepped on it.  Ew.).  I’ve found that keeping in good humor about everything that’s different from what I’m used to has been essential to not feeling overwhelmed right now.

After a few of my roommates helped bring everything in, my mom and I swept a little, rearranged the furniture, and made my bed.  My mom really wanted to do more to put together my room for me, but we decided rather to head out to find her hotel and get her checked in.  Before we left, we took a handful of pictures and had our picture taken on the front steps of my house by one of my roommates and his girlfriend who recently moved to Chicago.
From there, we checked into my mom’s hotel, scouted out a Wal-Mart to buy a few toiletries and the ingredients for cupcakes, and then set Wanda to lead us into The Loop so my mom could experience Millennium Park.  She got to see The Bean, a few outdoor art pieces affiliated with the Art Institute of Chicago, and the amphitheater (which I still don’t know the name of).  Seeing as this was my mom’s first time in Chicago, I demanded that she try Chicago-style deep dish pizza, and dragged her a few blocks over to Giordano’s.  A family festival had just let out in Millennium Park, packing the place with parents and children and people of all ages.  We placed our order and then sat outside to talk for a while until we could be seated.  When we finally were seated, Mom and I waited for our food by watching the opening ceremony of the Olympics.  Try as we might, we could not figure out what those egg-shaped objects the ambassadors of sorts were carrying ahead of each team.  If you know, please comment, because I think I’ve thought about those odd things every day since last Friday.  I haven’t googled it because I’ve been trying to spend as little time on my computer as possible (says the girl writing a 5,000 word blog post…).

While we were out, those of my housemates that had already moved in texted me to see if I could or would join them for tango dancing at a studio one of my housemates (who is actually from Chicago) goes to regularly.  Mom and I decided to just head back to the hotel and sleep there for the night in the end seeing as dinner ended at what felt like 11pm for us.  I’m so very glad I had that time with my mom, too, before she began her two-day journey back to Chesapeake.  I do have to admit, though:  some of the stories that came out of that first night for my housemates are undeniably hilarious. 

Mom dropped me off at my house the next morning after we had an all-too-short Starbucks date.  I burned a few CDs for her for the road, and then she was off.  And so it began.

Saturday, July 28th
Wow—already struggling to remember this day.  Roommate 8 of 9 arrived that morning, and I committed to spending my time alternating between working on setting up my room further (hanging up clothes, arranging books, setting up surge protectors and lamps, etc.) and talking with my roommates.  Although, as I said, I’d been to this house before during my interviews, Saturday was the first day I really recognized just how nice our house is.  We have a little front yard, a somewhat larger back yard with tables and chairs, two grills (one gas, the other charcoal), five full bathrooms, ten rooms, a well-supplied kitchen and perishable-stocked pantry.  I quickly came to the realization that living simply in this house would be much more of a mindset until we’re committed to the food budget and our personal stipends.  Our neighborhood, however, though charming, is the kind of neighborhood you wouldn’t chance walking around alone in at night.  I don’t know that I’d even try doing so alone during the day.  As a matter of fact, we learned from some of the alums that we live right next to a dividing line between two gang territories (a story for another day, perhaps).

Seven of us spent the afternoon together on a wild ride out to the suburbs in our Windstar minivan, which we’ve named “The Housewife,” so one of my roommates could complete a craigslist deal for a road bike.  This trip made me realized just how funny all of my roommates are in their own way.  I laughed so much and so hard that first day—I even cried a few times from laughter.  Once the somewhat shady deal had been done with a guy who turned out to be a high school kid intent on scamming my roommate, we found a way to all fit in the car with a newly acquired rusted and run-down road bike.
That night we made and ate our first dinner together:  ribs.  (I should note that this is not typical fare for us.  We simply had a few items stocked in our freezer when we arrived.)  None of us had ever grilled ribs before, much less used a gas grill.  We plugged into our DSL and googled ourselves to a solution.  The roommate from Chicago and her mother brought us a bunch of groceries from her freezer, which had been left open during the night, causing everything to defrost.  We joked that we were going to start sneaking into peoples’ houses to “accidentally” leave their freezers open so that we could have food donated to us regularly all year.  A few of my roommates are absolute whizzes in the kitchen, and made the most delicious mustard-based marinade for the ribs.  In addition to the ribs, we had salad and green curry chicken.  We ate outside at the table in the backyard, and sat talking late into the night, long after having finished eating.

When finally we did go back inside, we played a round of Spoons (a card game), where I effectively established my house reputation as the Game Queen.  I don’t recall having been considered a card shark at any other point in my life, but I’m not complaining!  My roommates have jokingly told everyone from the other houses that they hate playing games with me because I always win.  Always being, you know…once.  :p

All in all, it was a wonderful night, and I remember climbing into my new bed that night excited to wake up and become even better friends with all of the wonderful people that had just stepped into my life.

Sunday, July 29th
The first thing on the agenda this morning was to pick up the last member of our new family, roommate #9, from the Greyhound Station.  She just finished a year as a volunteer with JVC, or the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, out in Los Angeles, so we were all eager to add all of her wisdom to our already fun and crazy group dynamic.  (As a sidenote, she and I get along really well because she has a duck obsession that equals if not surpasses my zebra obsession.  It’s love. :p)

Once we picked her up, we all got dressed for our Commissioning Mass.  We quickly discovered that our house is chock full of people with musical talents.  Six or so of us headed to the North House—which is connected to St. Mary of the Lake Catholic Church—to run through all of the music before Mass.  I have rarely heard such sincerely beautiful voices in person as I did that day.  One girl from South House in particular has an angelic voice that I could only dream of having.
My favorite point(s) from the homily that day were these:
1.     We must begin by recognizing that we ARE God’s beloved—unconditionally so and by no merit of our own.
2.     Our mission this year is to begin to play our part in bringing about and furthering the Kingdom of God here on earth.
There were so many other beautiful messages and encouragements in the homily, but it’s already been a week and a day, so I’m having a difficult time remembering them.  It’s a shame, but that’s what I get for forgetting my notebook that day!
Mass ended with each of us being anointed by our respective house coordinators and receiving a blessing from the friends and family in attendance.  It was a really beautiful way to kick off our year.

After Mass, we had an opening barbecue, which was full of fellowship and delicious food.  We even got to tour the old convent North House is located in.  They have their own chapel!  I have to admit that I love Little Village the most out of the three houses, but the chapels in both the North and South Houses leave me a little green with envy.  Because, you know, that’s how chapels are supposed to make you feel… :p

I wish I remembered more of this day, but the evening has already faded from memory.  I drove that day, though!  I made my way back to our house by following memories of my Alternative Spring Break trip in March.  I’m a Chicago driving pro now. ;)

Monday, July 30th
Monday was Orientation Lite, in hindsight.  We began with morning prayer, led by Ali, our House Coordinator.  Generally the way morning prayer works is that we read the readings for the day (The Catholic Church designates three readings per weekday worldwide:  a passage usually taken from the Old Testament, a Psalm, and a passage from one of the four Gospels) and then someone takes the lead on sharing a reflection or a song or somehow else facilitating a morning dedication of the day to the One who brought us all together.

After morning prayer, two alums from Little Village 2011-2012 came by to give us an in-depth tour of our house/resources and neighborhood.  They were a wealth of knowledge and experience, and I’m so thankful that they took the time to acquaint us with the neighborhood and their favorite memories of living in Little Village.

We made lunch out of the previous day’s leftovers and then carpooled over to South House to learn how to keep track of our transportation (Cars, CTA, and bikes).  Essentially, we have a house stipend for travel to and from work.  Each car has a clipboard inside on which we track any changes in the odometer and the purpose of each trip out with a vehicle.  If we take a car out for personal use (gym, walmart, etc.), we’re responsible for paying 25 cents per mile out of our own individual stipend.  After learning how to manage the cars, a representative from the Archdiocese took scans of our fingerprints and we filled out a number of forms (for loan deferment, health insurance enrollment, and a waiver for a trip that Friday to a team building park).

That night two of my housemates made the first of three dinners I’ve had this past week with burritos as the entrée.  Everyone has been so great about accommodating my lactose intolerance.  I had really expected to have to eat around the dairy in meals each night, but so far everyone’s been mindful of each other’s dietary concerns.  It’s more than I could have asked for, really.

In fact, that night, we all decided to try out “Á Zucar”, a gelato shop that sells two scoops for $1.50.  I was able to purchase sorbet and be included in the delicious fun because one of my roommates graciously spoke with the store owner about dairy allergies to find out what other options he had available.  In many ways, my roommates are spoiling me rotten with their kindness.

The best parts about that day were:
1.  For a few days, one of our roommates had been living our of her suitcase because she was still waiting for her packages to arrive.  The packages had become a legend at this point as we all endlessly joked about the magical and absurd things we’d find in these elusive boxes if they were to ever arrive.  While most of our roommates watched the Olympics that night, I helped her unpack and made her bed for her.  We even scared one of our roommates half to death by bursting out from the inside of one of the boxes when he came in to say goodnight.
2.  Playing volleyball and Frisbee in McKinley Park just down the street from South House.

Tuesday, July 31st
Today’s topic was “Expectations.”  We met at the Meyer Center, a building owned and operated by the Archdiocese.  We were instructed to wear college t-shirts that day, so I had a lot of fun showing off my Virginia Tech gear and wondering where in the world all of these tiny little private colleges I’d never heard of were.  I think there’s one other person in our entire group of 33 that attended a state college like I did.

We began the morning with Morning Prayer led by one of the volunteers from South House.  He did a really beautiful reflection on the Gospel and then told a personal story about discernment while sharing “Head Full of Doubt / Road Full of Promise” by the Avett Brothers.  Everyone was thoroughly impressed, and I have to admit it made me really nervous about leading morning prayer the next morning!

We then broke into smaller groups to have a conversation about Intentionality, discussing opinions on three main subjects:  money, time, and alcohol.  We were numbered off into groups of three made up of one person from each house.  It was fascinating to me to hear what kinds of conversations and events had taken place in the houses so much larger than our own.

We then took our bag lunches out to the Lakefront and ate alongside the water.  Upon finishing eating, we took pictures, spelling out AMATE with our bodies.  They turned out pretty well!  You can find them on the Amate House facebook page if you’re curious seeing as I don’t have my own copy. :)

When we returned to the Meyer Center, we divided up into our individual houses and created a “Safe Space Sharing Covenant,” which is a list of guidelines for live-giving and respectful conversation within our home.  Our list (a work in progress) is as follows:
+  Try not to limit ourselves and each other with assumptions.
+  Be prudent.
+  Remain positive.
+  Be open-minded to others’ differences.
+  Be aware of each other’s needs.
+  Treat each other’s faults hopefully.
+  Recognize and balance different types of communication.
+  Have patience around our relational development.
+  Respect confidentiality.
+  Strive towards peace.
+  Don’t deny someone else’s reality.
+  Be courageous in vulnerability.

This was more or less my first introduction to the hopes and dreams and intentions of my roommates, and to say that I was impressed and inspired would be the greatest understatement of my experience thus far.  I really am living with some of the most beautiful people.  Even though I am one of this generation and comments of this sort usually come from people at least twice my age, my roommates give me hope for the future of our mad little world.

That day was made all the better when we were afforded the opportunity to meet with the three founders of Amate House:  John, John, and Ken.  Hopefully I will be able to share the founding story of our program sometime in the near future.  All three of the founders were so very wise and sincerely good souls.  They were so charming, humble, and eloquent and were careful to express their gratitude to the countless people who took their dream and made it a reality.  One of the founders even took us through an explication of the Our Father and encouraged us to mindfully pray it each morning as we walk into our individual service sites.  I hope to do just that!

We ended the evening with an incredible dinner prepared for us by the Amate House staff.
Today’s trivia:  Did you know my year with Amate House is the program’s 29th year? :)

Wednesday, August 1st 
Today was one of my roommates’ birthday!  He’s 23 now!  Before arriving, I had expected to be the youngest in the house, but I’m actually the second youngest in the house because one of my super-smart roommates skipped freshman year of high school.  (As a side note, I didn’t realize I had had so many expectations going in!  Whoops!)

We began this morning at DePaul University.  I was responsible for leading morning prayer, which ended up being much more of a struggle than I expected after having led faith sharing for a number of years now.  I was nervous about having all of my new peers’ eyes on me for a time, but I’m glad I challenged myself to do it.  I began by having three of my housemates read the readings for the day.  I then switched gears to the day’s focus:  building community.  I shared two quotes about community that I found by sifting through an archive online:
1.  “…a community needs a soul if it is to become a true home for human beings.  You, the people, must give it this soul.”  --  Blessed John Paul II
2.  “There can be no vulnerability without risk; there can be no community without vulnerability; there can be no peace, and ultimately no life, without community.”  -- M. Scott Peck

After the quotations, I read two excerpts from a retreat book on Ignatian spirituality called “Consoling the Heart of Jesus.”  The passages focus on the dignity and unique gifts of each and every person and our responsibility to treat them in such a way that promotes and affirms their worth and dignity.

Then, I pulled out my Hearth Stones.  Some of you already know about this practice of mine that I picked up from the Sisters of Mercy I worked with in Mississippi during an alternative spring break.  But for those of you who don’t know, Hearth Stones are little handcrafted clay hearts with a word engraved on them.  They feature words of “graces” such as peace, love, play, freedom, patience, etc.  Each day, I pull out a stone and try to be prayerful and mindful throughout the day about how God manifests that grace in my life, through others and/or through me.  We did this every morning in Mississippi.

For the purposes of morning prayer and its focus on building community, however, I had everyone draw out a stone, pass it to their left, and then pray for the person to their right to receive or make manifest the grace they had drawn.  Then I read the prayer I wrote:
My Dear Sweet Lord Jesus,
Thank You so much for this day!  Thank You for calling each of us to be here and be present to our vocation to love one another.  Lead us forward this day; show us what small merciful deeds we can enact in Your name as the Body of Christ to bring Your kingdom to fruition.  Help us to recognize the pearl of great price You have planted within each of our hearts.  Give us the grace to recognize and pray hopefully for the manifestation of each other’s unique gifts.  May we always remember that each person in this space has been endowed with a soul, a fragment of Your kingdom.  Guide us to piece ourselves together in such a way that our community becomes a living, breathing manifestation of Your love for the world, especially the poor and marginalized.  In Your name we pray.

Everyone then passed their Hearth Stones back and we began discussing the building blocks of community as well as sharing personal experiences of community (both good and bad) and what those experiences led us to believe about community.  We watched an interview with Diane Leafe Christian, the author of “Creating a Life Together:  Practical Tools to Grow an Intentional Community.”  Ms. Christian was well-versed in the art of community building.  She had done extensive research on communities while working for a magazine about the same topic, wherein she discovered the most important aspects for maintaining a successful intentional community:
1.  A common purpose/vision/goal
2.  Fair participatory decision-making method
3.  Equal access to power
4.  Training/balance of skills
5.  Clear agreements in writing
6.  Accountability

We created our own extensive list of aspects of a successful intentional community and actually managed between the 33 of us to come up with just about everything on Ms. Christian’s list and then some.

We then reflected on 1 Corinthians 12:4-11, recognizing the Spirit that binds us in our purpose despite our varied gifts and varied roles within a community.

After lunch on the grounds of DePaul, we did a short optional guided meditation, led by one of the house coordinators.  She aptly chose a meditation focused on journeys:  ending one and beginning another.  The air was fragrant with the laughter of summer camp children as we lay in the grass and reflected on where we’d been and where we were headed in our individual journeys.

Following that reflection, we reviewed the tenets of the Amate House Covenant:  Stewardship, Social Justice, Faith, Service, and Community.  In our House communities, we discussed which tenets we were most excited and anxious about.
That evening, after running through the format for Community Nights and House Meetings, we hosted a dinner for four Amate alums.  One of the alums was the same who had graciously guided me through my site interview process in May.  It was great to see her again before the city of Chicago reluctantly lets her go later this month.  We opened the floor to the alum to share their struggles, triumphs, memories, and wisdom about their year with Amate.  We learned so much and gleaned some really exciting ideas from their experience.  We enjoyed their company and conversation (and dessert!) so much we kept them late into the night.

You’ll have to forgive my necessary ambiguity, but that night, we experienced a disconcerting security issue that resulted in a giant house bonding sleepover on the second floor of our new home.  We all responded differently to the event, but when we all sat down to pray through our feelings, thoughts, emotions, fears, etc. I felt at home.  The incident only brought us closer together, and once again, I couldn’t help but acknowledge just how incredible my roommates are.  I’m blessed beyond belief.


For all of our sanity, I’m going to cut this post off here just so you guys have a sense of what all has been happening with me but don’t want to sue the Internet for allowing me to write so much your eyes start bleeding. ;)
Anyway!  I love all of you, and I hope to get a chance soon to fill you in on yet another week’s worth of Orientation and craziness here!

**Also, next time I update, check back to see the pictures I intend to add to this post! :)

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

An Introduction of Sorts

Hi everyone!

The time has finally come! After an eventful and wonderful three-day trip with my mom, I’ve arrived in Chicago. Actually, by the time you read this, I’ll have been here for at least five days! I’m still having a hard time believing it’s already here, but at the same time, I feel as if I’ve been here for months.

In all honesty, I don’t even know where to begin. But let’s try to start with a little bit about this blog: what it has been and what I intend for it to be, yeah? Great--let’s get to it, then!

I’ve kept a blog off and on for the past few years (this particular one I’ve had since 2008). I started blogging when I was in 7th grade. When I first began, I tended to turn to my blog when a lot was weighing on my mind and I didn’t know how to sort through all of the thoughts clamoring for attention except to set my hands on a keyboard and start typing. I’d say the majority of the posts left in this space follow that trend. Others are simple and update you (and me after time has passed and memory has slipped) on what has transpired in my life that felt noteworthy for any number of reasons.

When I decided that I would keep a blog during my year serving with Amate House (I’ll call it Amate from here on out because that’s typically how we refer to it), I debated with myself on whether I’d run it through this particular blog or start a new one. In the end, I decided I wanted to be able to remember where I came from and what brought me to this year, seeing as this year isn’t just an isolated slice of my life. I want my blog to reflect my reality: that I am a composite of my past experiences, memories, thoughts, feelings, heartaches, joys, etc. Everything that has been has contributed in some way to the development of the girl that felt called to intentional community, personal spiritual development, and heartfelt service. All of that being said, this is now a shared space between you and me: feel free to peek back at some of my older posts if you’d like. Just keep in mind that, God willing, it’s all onwards and upwards from there. :)

As for what this blog will be, that’s really still in the works. I don’t know how often I’ll update, as my focus this year is and will remain on my community life, and sitting in my room alone writing blog posts might not always be conducive to that focus. All I know so far is that I really want to have some sort of way to communicate my experiences with all of you en masse, preserve memories, work through challenges, and wonder at my blessings. Ideally, I’ll settle into a rhythm with this blog and you’ll enjoy walking this journey with all of my housemates and me. Bear with me until we get there!

Now, then! Most of you reading this probably already know about Amate as we’ve likely had one or a few conversations about it. But if you don’t have any idea or you just want to better acquaint yourself with the logistics of my life for the next year, I’ve created a section on the left side of the blog with relevant links for you to click through and consider, including: the Amate House website, my job site’s website, and so on. For simplicity’s sake:
+ Amate House is a post-grad volunteer program under the Archdiocese of Chicago, Catholic by affiliation, but not exclusive to other faiths.
+ There are thirty-three total volunteers, divided into three separate houses: North House, South House, and Little Village.
+ With 8 other volunteers (3 boys, 5 girls), I live in Little Village, a renovated split level in the Hispanic neighborhood of the same name established by a wave of predominantly Mexican immigrants in the 1980s. The other houses each have 12 volunteers and are housed in old convents.
+ Each volunteer interviewed for and was eventually assigned by mutual agreement to different full-time volunteer job sites throughout the city. Our jobs are ideally at least 80% direct service, meaning we’re not simply sorting mail in the back room of a charity headquarters. Rather, we’re interacting daily with Chicago’s poor, marginalized, and underprivileged (although qualifying them as such tempts me to limit them in ways that I and the other volunteers must be mindful not to do--goodness knows circumstances and what-have-you already do enough of that).
+ I will be working as the Activities Director for West Suburban Senior Services. I’m thinking I’ll do a blurb introduction of each of my housemates and fill you in on what I understand of each of their jobs later on.
+ Our program is founded on five principles:
     - Service
     - Community
     - Faith
     - Social Justice
     - Stewardship
+ In keeping with our choice to live simply with intentionality and in solidarity with those we serve, we live off a house budget for food, house supplies, transportation, etc. Outisde of the house budget, we each receive $100 in petty cash (allowance) each month for personal expenses.
+ Each house community is expected to make and eat meals together Monday through Thursday; one night a week is a designated prayer/community night led in turn by individual members of the house.
+ August, our first month, is entitled Intentional August, during which we are meant to be especially intentional about developing relationships within our houses; some of my housemates gave up facebook for August, some leave their phone/computer/etc. in their room while inside the house. These decisions were made on an individual basis. I, for example, will be leaving my phone in my room while at home, only using facebook on the weekends so long as we aren’t doing something as a community, and simply spending as little time holed up alone in my room as possible.

I’m sure there’s so much more to tell you and a great number of questions you might have about our daily life and program, but I’ll fill in those gaps either as you ask questions or as they arise topically on the blog. Like I said: bear with me! :)

I’ll leave you with all of that for now. I’ll get back to all of you again soon to fill you in on what the first few days have been like. Spoiler alert: I love my housemates. ;)

Love always,
Kara <3