I’ve been thinking a lot about my time in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps lately. After undergrad, I spent a year in volunteer service. Seven of us from all over the country lived in a house in Aberdeen, WA and worked full time volunteer positions in social services. We received two checks each month – one for the community to pay rent, utilities, food, etc.. And a personal stipend of $85 a month. That number makes me laugh now. I easily spend $85 a month on entertainment alone now.
Just to give you a little picture of Aberdeen in 1997 – it was severely economically depressed with a high rate of mental illness and poverty. It is grey and rainy 80% of the year. It’s where Kurt Cobain is from. We lived up the hill from his alma mater.
I was a case aid for severely and chronically mentally ill adults. Fresh out of college, I thought this was the type of work I wanted to do. The human mind always fascinated me. I was the sort of teenage weirdo that read books about multiple personality disorders or the psychology of the Germans during the Nazi era.
It was one of the most informative, enlightening, challenging, heartbreaking, loving, spiritual and intentional years of my life. JVC said after this year, you will be ruined for life. Truer words were never spoken.
I was not ruined in a bruised and battered way. I was broken open.
At just 22, I had to dig deep to find empathy, compassion, understanding and resilience I never knew I had.
I learned to live with people in intentional community. We fought. We loved. We stretched and challenged one another. We laughed and talked late into the night. We danced. We played. We found new ways to entertain ourselves in a small town pre-internet with no money.
It was the first time I had lived so far from home and I missed my closest friends and family. Sometimes, I could taste my loneliness, bitter on my tongue.
The work was incredibly challenging. My clients were chronically depressed, schizophrenia and bi-polar, often delusional or having hallucinations. I prevented suicides. I checked clients into the crisis clinic. Sometimes they had to go to the state mental hospital for their own safety or the safety of others. I cleaned apartments plastered with porn to keep a client from being evicted.
My fascination for the human mind was no match for the suffering in front of me of a client who had tactile hallucinations. He always felt like people were touching him – and not in a loving and comforting way. He spent most of his time in his room wielding knives to keep the touch away. Other clients called him the Highlander.
Yes, this year broke me open and ruined me for life. And as JVC was also fond of saying: This is a year in your life, not a year out of your life. This isn’t your life on pause.
This time right now in Covid Quarantine feels much the same way. This time sheltering in place is a time in my life – not out of it. This is not a pause. I am not in a coma. I wake up and breathe every day.
In these last couple of months, I’ve experienced despair, loss, grief, loneliness, love, joy, exuberance, peace, hope and hopelessness. Empathy. Compassion.
The other day I was simply bursting with joy and put on my most fun music and danced in the kitchen while making dinner. My family was out playing in the pool and their sounds of joy and laughter lifted my heart like a balloon.
Just a couple hours later, I realized I’d forgotten a zoom birthday party for my 7 year old and he cried. And then I made my 10 year old cry when he overheard me asking my husband to snuggle with him so I could have a break.
I felt like a terrible mother and all my bad mom gremlins were screaming at me. I wanted to get out of those icky feelings. Just like I’ve wanted to get out of the ickiest feelings during quarantine. Maybe with a sugary treat, or a drink or a few minutes of Facebook. Ok, fine- hours.
But when I numb, I numb it all. I I numb the joy, the love, the pain and the sorrow. If I want the soaring joy of dancing in the kitchen with Lizzo, I have to be open to the feeling the mom guilt.
This time in quarantine is a time IN MY LIFE. And much like my year of JVC, it’s going to ruin me for life. I will be forever changed by this.
We all will be. Like it or not, this time will change us, just as all major life events change us. We will remember events as before and after the pandemic. Just like we remember things before or after someone’s death or a graduation. It is a mark in our history. It’s unavoidable.
How will this mark me? Sometimes it’s hard to know. JVC was over 20 years ago and I’m still learning from the ways that experience molded me.
My sincerest hope for me – for all of us – is that this experience teaches me to access tools and skills I didn’t know I had. What am I learning? To give and receive grace from myself and others. To offer more empathy than I knew I was capable of. How to ask for help and support when and where I need it. To be vulnerable and open to the uncertainty – the only certain thing in this time. I will be more resilient and resourceful than ever.
However we are coping during this time is the way we are getting through. It is serving us. It is neither good nor bad. It simply is. If you’ve made it another day, you’ve found a way to cope.
This time will mark you and me. This time will mark our entire planet.
And – this is a time IN our lives. Not out of our lives. If you woke up this morning – you are living. If you’re reading this at 3:00 am after a month of insomnia – you have a pulse.
“Life grabs you by the neck directs you where to go…” sang Greenday the year I did JVC. “I hope you had the time of your life.”
What if the time of your life is not just about fun? What if it’s simply being here? The gift and curse of uncertainty is it’s nearly impossible to make plans because it feels so useless. So, I am here now. I’m more present to this time in my life more than ever.
I am living this time of my life.