Lent has always been one of my favorite times of the year. Appropriately meaning “spring,” I have found these forty days to be utterly reminiscent of just that, full of rebirth and rejuvenation. The time of conscientious discipline and self-examination has always meant one of paring my life of unnecessary frivolities and distractions, focusing on what I have deemed necessary, important, and good. The time I spend on social media and other time-draining websites will be cut, resolving to devote this time to almost anything other than comparison-drawing, attention-seeking sites like Facebook unless it is for communication purposes. I plan to rededicate myself to physical activity, hoping to reverse the atrophy of my body caused by grad school and far too many excuses. Finally, prayer and self-examination will be brought closer to the forefront of my priorities as I use this time to dust off my spiritual life that has remained too dormant these last seven months since returning from my year in Jamaica as a PVI.
That year, in many ways, was a period of Lent in my life – a time of fruitful denial, of searching, and of temptation. Since coming back to the United States, this land of plenty, this seasonal transition to a winter devoid of signs of life has mirrored the transition from that Jamaican spring. Living in the intentional PVI community, surrounded by like-minded people, the best was brought out in us. We were held accountable by each other to live up to the standards of communities before us and of the ideals of the program, namely simplicity and service. Whenever one of the individual members was torn down, another member or the community, as a whole was always there to build them up, and torn down we were. We were torn down by work, by words, by time, by tragedy, even by each other. Despite this, it was never long before a fellow PVI or a moment or service would offer rebirth and rejuvenation.
This tearing brings to mind the Ash Wednesday’s First Reading and my personal mantra for this Lenten season from the book of Joel: “Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God,” This rending, this tearing, conjures not images of violence and desecration, but of purification and paring our lives of that which directs us away from our telos, our purpose to be the most whole human beings we can be. Since completing my time as a PVI, this goal has not always been at the forefront of my thoughts. With our community spread throughout the country and hemisphere, keeping in touch isn’t always easy. The people and places we fell in love with in Jamaica are but memories at times. These faces and work that stripped us of our pride, our greed, and our envy have been replaced with school and jobs that, at least for me, lack all the newness, vibrancy, and meaning that got us out of bed and down the street to taxi every morning for a year of our lives.
Now, I don’t want to lead you to think that this return has been filled with nothing but despair compared to the joy felt in Mandeville. Rather, I hope to use this springtime to return to the service and simplicity that left such a profound mark on my life, spiritual and otherwise. Rededicating myself to these ideals will, I know, be far from easy with temptation forever bearing down on me in the form of laziness and complacency. But bringing to mind my year of service, rather than eliciting pain in its passing, will offer direction and bearing.
That has been the hardest part about this transition, trying not to grasp for that which has passed, but to apply what I learned and felt in Jamaica to the present while remaining connected to those people and places, not distant.
It’s an impossibly fine balance to strike, and I almost hate to do this because of the cliché, but Bob Marley might have put these feelings most succinctly in saying “the winds that sometimes take something we love, are the same that bring us something we learn to love.” Getting on the plane to leave Jamaica was nothing short of indescribable, my life being torn between what I had come to love in Jamaica and what I had merely known in the United States. It is my hope that this time of Lent will continue to allow me to learn that my time spent there and relationships forged can be used to direct my life in ways to know that same sense of peace and fulfillment I found on the island.
Two months ago my alarm rang at 7:00 am, but I can tell you now that I was probably already awake. Sleeping in didn’t used to be much of an option with the hot sun streaming in, the resounding echo of taxi horns, barking dogs, and the never-ending sound of reggae rhythms floating in through my open windows. As I would wrestle to open my mosquito net, which was inevitably tangled in the course of my deep slumber, I would begin to mentally plan my day, mildly panicking at how I would fit everything in. Where was I taking taxi? Who was I visiting? What should I pack in my backpack for the day; coloring books, sidewalk chalk and crayons for a fun day with the kiddos in the impoverished bush community that I served in, Albion Gully? Or would it be soap, combs and rubbing alcohol for some of my friends at the Infirmary, home to over 90 residents who are severely mentally and physically disabled? After my morning coffee and a quick breakfast I was out the door eager for what the day held, planned or otherwise.
Today I woke up at 11:00 am, in a queen sized bed in my childhood room, tangled not in my mosquito net but in a heavy quilt and numerous pillows. I had an alarm set for 8:00 am but as it rang it’s chorus I promptly shut it off, rolling over with a groan and mentally trying to find a reason to get out of bed. Thinking of none, I slept for three more hours, because? Because why not….
I literally couldn’t find a reason to get out of bed.
This thought depresses me. Then again a lot depresses me these days. When I awoke two months ago my friends lived in board houses with zinc roofs or one-room cement houses with outdoor latrines, we cooked together outside over an open fire, we played football with tinfoil balls and made toys out of empty bottles.
Now, driving (on the right side of the road) I visit my friends and travel through a neighborhood of paved roads, trimmed and irrigated lawns and arrive at four-bedroom, two-bath houses. So begins the “return to normal.” Is this normal? Am I okay with this new normal?
These questions and many more are what entertain my thoughts these past few weeks as I sit in this hiatus of life. August 4th, when I arrived on U.S. soil once more after a year of service in a rural and impoverished area of Jamaica, my life came to a full stop.
Amidst bereaving the absence of my six day work-week filled with passion and purpose, my Jamaican friends and community members that I spent 12 months laughing, crying and growing together in mutual love, and the absence of a way of life that felt so strange, foreign and filled with challenges and yet that utterly filled me with life; I now stop. I sleep, I read, I pray and I ponder these questions that flit in and out of my conscious.
I am forced to wrestle with how I’ve changed, how the experiences of the last 12 months have left their indelible print on my heart and on the core of who I am, how I will harness them to fuel change in my future, how I desperately cling to memories, faces and experiences that I am for some reason terrified that I will forget.
I wrestle with thoughts of white privilege, disparity of resources, materialism, consumerism and the economic, social and political injustices that I once witnessed firsthand but that now bombard my life from media outlets that are simply pervasive and inescapable.
I spent a year in a service of accompaniment, “walking with the crucified of today,” as the Passionist Volunteers mission statement says. In July of 2013, I stepped off the plane in Jamaica believing that I was charged to “go forth and set the world on fire” (thanks to my Ignatian education), what I couldn’t even fathom at that time was how my world, my life and my heart would be set on fire.
I was immersed in experiences of culture, poverty and inequality, but also love and relationship, and what it truly means to participate in a mutual exchange. One of the most gratifying parts of my year was recognizing that I was serving as God’s instrument each and every day, whether it was through tangibly utilizing my gifts and talents to somehow ease another’s burden, or through harnessing the spirit of accompaniment and simply offering a presence to the people whom I served. What more could you ask for right?
Wrong. Far outweighing this enormous sense of gratification was the fulfillment that I felt each and every day as I progressively witnessed how God was ministering to me through the Jamaican people and my everyday experiences. Each soul I encountered offered me encouragement, a lesson, a hug on a hard day, a challenge to overcome or simply an opportunity for God’s grace to be present to me.
Through my ministries in Jamaica I was able to look into the windows of the human heart and soul and understand the depths of what it means to be alive and to live in this beautiful world; in a capacity I had never previously comprehended.
A friend of mine at the Infirmary, Rasta Brooks, suffers from diabetes that without medication leaves him crippled and on some days incapacitated. However, no matter his condition, he was nearly always in a good mood and eager to converse and “reason” with me. True to his Rastafarian beliefs, he is constantly seeking to further his knowledge and wisdom and believes this is best achieved in conversation with others. “Each one, teach one, sister Katie!” he told me every time I would visit.
Each one, teach one indeed. We are all called to minister to each other every day of our lives no matter where we are. Whether it’s traipsing through the bush with a bunch of Jamaican children in tow singing devotion songs, or in a corporate office eating lunch with your co-workers. It’s simply about letting go, relinquishing control and allowing others to influence, shape us and show us God’s love in ways we would not otherwise see. It’s about living everyday with a purpose in your heart to ease another’s burden and lighten the weight of this world.
The problem for me right now is that these ideals were much clearer to me in Jamaica. I lived a life of simplicity with no purpose but to follow God’s calling and see what adventures it called me to each day. Now I’ve been abruptly called back to the “real world.” What is the “real world” anyway? I find it to be an arbitrary phrase that people should probably stop using in the context of “welcome back to the real world Katie,” because it doesn’t feel like I’m living in it right now.
As I attempt to sit comfortably in my unemployment, typing this from the kitchen table in my suburban home, I am attempting to open my eyes to where I just may be called next. I have been filled with experiences, relationships, knowledge, love and expanded horizons that seem to still overwhelm me each day. Yet I must remember to take my own medicine, it’s about relinquishing control and being open to utilizing these experiences to walk forward in my next steps in life. So I will go forth, maybe not necessarily to set the world on fire, but with hopes of setting hearts on fire and to continue to add fuel to the blaze that was started in my own. I will not simply mourn the absence of Jamaica in my life but will take Jamaica with me, with clear eyes and an open heart, I will go forth.