Archive | March, 2013

Senegal and After

24 Mar
Marie Ebacher at commune in Senegal.

Marie Ebacher at commune in Senegal.

          EDITOR’S NOTE: Marie Ebacher has had a busy week. On Thursday the Assumption College senior accepted the George A. Doyle Merit Award for Excellence in Economics or Global Studies; then she was back in rehearsals as the puppeteer inside Audrey II, the man-eating plant that’s the star of The Little Shop of Horrors. But Marie, a Global Students and French double-major with a minor in Peace and Conflict Studies, is used to being busy – and somehow she manages to keep an eye on the bigger picture. In her Doyle acceptance speech, she took time to remind the audience that it was International Children’s Peace Day; meanwhile, she’s giving part of her Doyle award to African Community Education in Worcester, which she credits for nudging her further down the road that, two years ago, led her to study abroad in Senegal – a place she wishes to return to if she receives a Fulbright, for which she is a finalist.

        Naturally, given her role in Little Shop, she hopes to study street puppetry in Senegal. Amid all this, she was kind enough to reward my request for a piece about re-entry – the transition from the mountain top to life back home. Her piece is below.

Curled up next to the campfire, I was silent. I had never experienced a silence like this. My eyes were not fixated on the flames or the embers. I had seen too much fire the last six months.

What I couldn’t take me eyes off of was the aluminum coke can. The squealing sounds reverberated in my ears, as if a megaphone was pressed up to the side of my head. I watched as the flames choked out invisible toxic gases and the can suffered a slow death. Fireworks were lighting up the sky in the distance but my gaze remained unbroken.

I left the Fourth of July party and went to bed without telling my friends. Cocooned in my sleeping bag, I wept. The old me would have said It’s just one can, Marie. But this new me lashed out and felt disgusted that I call this country home.

I felt like screaming at the person who threw that can into the fire, “Do you know that in Senegal there is no trash day? No public dumps? No recycling? Of course you don’t, you ignorant fool! If you did you would have thought twice before you had some fun by throwing that can into the fire. In Senegal they have no other option but to burn their trash. They burn it all until the streets fill with flames.”

Upon returning to the United States from Senegal, many things had changed. For the past six months I had grown accustomed to showering out of a bucket, spending hours washing all my clothes by hand, reducing my waste to almost nothing. I was bombarded with daily images of poverty and learned what it was like to live on the bare minimums. Life was tough, but it was beautiful. I never smiled or laughed so much. To this day, my time living in a rural village in Senegal was what I would consider the best time of my life.

Eventually I overcame this post-traumatic stress that caused me so much anxiety and anger during the months following my return home. But its effects still linger. I find myself getting twitchy when my brother runs the water in the sink and feel uncontrollable guilt over any purchases that would not be considered necessities for survival. I have learned to appreciate my home again, but it is not the same type of appreciation I felt before and I do not think it ever will be.

Part of my heart has remained in Africa. When I begin to stray from what Senegal taught me, about the true joie de vivre, I feel a tug in my chest. It is my reminder to not forget where I come from or where I have been. It tells me to turn my anger into something productive and to love when I feel hate.

But do not fear. This loss of a piece of one’s heart is nothing permanent. It is like the tale of the Grinch. In the place of the missing puzzle piece, a heart will grow three sizes bigger.

Marie as Audrey II. (Rick Cinclair, Worcester Telegram.)

Marie as Audrey II. (Rick Cinclair, Worcester Telegram. )

Loustaunau Meets Lang

22 Mar
Art by Chronicle's Brian Taylor.

Art by Chronicle’s Brian Taylor.

Jim Lang’s column on Esteban Loustaunau and his community service learning course ran Friday in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Esteban, who teaches Spanish at Assumption College, designed a labor-intensive project two years ago which invited immigrant students at TRA Inc. to take photos of local places that somehow represented America and/or Worcester to them. He then worked, along with the Community Service Learning program, to mount an exhibit of their work.

Once you’ve read Jim’s fine column, feel free to visit my blog entry, including photos, on the event in February of 2012.

Elena and daughter with Esteban with her photo at February 2012 exhibit.

Elena and daughter with Esteban with her photo at February 2012 exhibit.

Water Bottles and Consumerism

17 Mar
Colleen Putzel with one of her new Ecuador friends.

Colleen Putzel with one of her new Ecuador friends.

            Editor’s Note: Part of my vision for this blog is to make a space for others to directly tell stories of their own community service experiences. This week and next, I’m featuring recollections from Assumption College students, two of whom have been kind enough to send pieces my way. We’re starting with Colleen Putzel, who reflects below on the re-entry after her Assumption SEND trip to Ecuador last December.

            Whenever I talk about Ecuador I instantly smile.  The week I spent in Arbolito profoundly changed my life. It is the one and only environment I have felt completely myself.  I felt filled while I was there.  I learned so much about global poverty, relationships and God.  I hoped this high would continue at home. I hoped I could share everything that I learned.  I came back thinking that I was going to change the world.

Then I came back.  The first thing was the cold. I forgot that I lived in New England and had just spent the week in beautiful 80 degree weather. I was wearing a small sweater as we got off the plane.  Luckily my friend Alex had a sweatshirt I could borrow.  He is over 6 feet and I barely reach 5’4’’ so needless to say I looked ridiculous walking through the airport.  Then there were the Americans.  No one looked at each other, people did not say ‘excuse me,’ and the food sucked.  And then the excess set in.  It seemed as though people were never satisfied.  Enough certainly was not enough, they needed MORE.  Always more.

The worst thing people said to me when I came back was “Wow, you must really appreciate everything you have after experiencing and witnessing poverty first hand.”  Sometimes I look around at all the stuff that I am surrounded by and I want to cry.  It does not make me thankful for everything I have, it makes me see how insignificant all of this stuff is.

Putzel (right bottom) and others pose for camera.

Putzel (right bottom) and others pose for camera.

I had a really hard time readjusting.  I could not find a place back home or at Assumption where I felt anything.  I was walking around with sadness; sadness about how people interact and how they treat the world.  Most of my group members were seniors and I was a sophomore.  I had two more years and they were moving on with their lives.  I felt like I was losing some of the only people that understood what I was going through.  All of the happiness and fulfillment of self that I felt in Ecuador had left me.  I felt like I had failed everyone I met in Ecuador because I could not come back and spread their story.

Meeting and befriending Kate Beigner saved me from becoming a shell of a person.  She ignited my spirit and showed me that social justice is not only a possibility but also a lifestyle.  I no longer felt isolated, I realized there are many others like me who are fighting for a better world.  It also helped me understand that I cannot change things over night.  So instead of feeling sad about what I cannot change, I have decided to change the things I have control over.  First and foremost that is myself.  I cut down consumerism an extensive amount.  I use a reusable water bottle (plastic water bottles are the bain of my existence).  I try to advocate for others through the Social Justice Committee at school and through social media.  Most importantly I try to live everyday with the realities of others in mind.

Sometimes I am overwhelmed with what is around me.  But I try to take things that I learned in Ecuador and apply them to my everyday life.  Ecuadorians are some of the most welcoming and genuine people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing.  They greet and say goodbye always with a hug and a kiss on the cheek.  They are not shy about showing their emotions and sharing their own story.  The people I met showed me how vital relationships are in life.  I try to apply that to my life here in the states where many relationships are downgraded to the screen on a phone or computer.  I work hard to look people in the eye and show them that I care about them.

Ecuador taught me that I do have gifts that I can exercise to bring about social change.  It taught me to be myself, to challenge social norms and to fight for what is truly right in the world.  Coming back is still hard.  Many things have changed for me yet I struggle every day in a world of plastic water bottles and consumerism.  My leader in Ecuador, Billy, said it best when he said that we are all scarred for life from our experiences.  But, it is scarred in the best way.  Knowing, however hard, is so much better than not knowing.  It is certainly harder, but my life feels more fulfilling.  Meeting people in Ecuador gave me incentive and I try to live every day in a fashion which would make them proud and honor all that they taught me.

The group enjoys a party.

The group enjoys a party.

On Loves Passionate and Companionate

3 Mar
Cavanagh edited

Sarah Cavanagh’s blog appears in Psychology Today.

In the first installment of Sarah Cavanagh’s blog for Psychology Today, she explored the topic of romantic love.

Her first step was to (gulp) define “love.”

“Early-stage romantic love is often called passionate love, and this love appears to be at least partially distinct from companionate love, or the gentle care that grows in long-term relationships as the intoxication of early love cools.”

She then set out to explore passionate love, since Valentine’s Day was, at the time of the writing, “just around the corner.”

So why am I writing about this almost three weeks after Valentine’s Day, on a blog about community service learning?

The first reason is that, what can I say, I’m way behind.

Then there’s the temptation every blogger faces – to ignore her/his initial focus and start chunking into the blog anything that fascinates. Cavanagh’s blog fits that bill, since I’m a sucker for the social sciences in general, and for people who write well about it in particular. But imposing my random and eclectic taste on a collection of random and eclectic friends … well, that’s what Facebook’s for.

Apologies made, there are other reasons that make Cavanagh a welcome voice in  Serving … the Story. For one thing, she’s part of the latest wave of practitioners of Community Service Learning at Assumption. Specializing in positive psychology, Cavanagh has added 15 hours of service to her current Motivation and Emotion course; students will report on how the service  impacts their own psychological well-being as the service ensues. I’m excited to see the results of her pedagogical innovation as the spring progresses.

Most thoughtful-provoking, though, is how Cavanagh’s above distinction between passionate and companionate love might apply to our personal service experiences. The word “passion,” after all, is overused left and right in the rhetoric of vocation and avocation. In my senior capstone course, students reading Po Bronson’s What Should I Do With My Life? debate the role of passion in making career choices – do you just wait for passion to strike, or go out and try different jobs until that magical click occurs? Of course, when it comes to making a living, people are forced at least to try something – one has to eat, after all. But Bronson’s book is full of people who, security obtained, then repress their restless and discontent, their vague sense that they have betrayed their dreams by giving up too easily. (Some of them, interestingly, turn to volunteer work to satisfy the other sides of their selves, feeling their way to ultimate career changes.)

But when it comes to service, which is voluntary, waiting for passionate love can result in years of doing no service at all. While our drives for shelter and romance drive us onto the interview and/or dating circuits, community service often seems so abstract, we don’t even know where to start. (One hope I harbor for community service programs is that it makes the act of serving feel less alien when people look for ways to feel the gaps in their lives down the road.)

What I most think about, however, is this notion of passionate love as an ecstasy of connection and transformation – the hope that somehow the act of serving is a kind of transcendental and romantic experience, in which one’s own petty problems drop away and one connects to the world in an almost cosmic way, completely at one with the act of serving … and even experiencing reciprocation in the form of a connection with those being served. I do not say this ironically – who, after all, in their soul of souls, haven’t wished for this spiritual high? I’m guessing a fair number of readers have known just such a joyous moment at one time or another – that mountaintop experience so profound, one seeks to take it and bottle it, and hope they won’t dash said bottle on the rocks upon their return to earth.

Such moments have their place. They lift us out of our immediate context, remind us of vaster worlds and alternate realities – ones that could just as easily be true, if we simply choose to act that way, and apply some imagination to how our routines can expand to acknowledge our now broader sense of possibilities.

But as in romance, the work of transforming those moments of joyfully passionate service into something lasting is, I suspect, the role of companionate love – the kind of love that simply shows up every day, week, or month, regardless of the highs and lows of the service experience. The secret, it seems, is in the balance itself. And with that sense of routine, something more lasting grows.

What, however, if the two loves work in the opposite order?

Back in 1981, I trained on a mountaintop of my own – OK, more like a hilltop, in the ruggedly beautiful hill country northwest of San Antonio – as part of a Presbyterian program to send new college graduates to small churches which couldn’t afford to hire their own youth directors. A latecomer who applied only after someone I knew dropped out of the program, I was surrounded by people who had started applying a year earlier, who had systematically jumped through the hoops of the application process – and who knew, to one degree or another, that they had a passionate love for church work. About half would wind up in seminaries; it only took weeks for me to realize that I wasn’t going to be one of them. I fought the feeling that because I wasn’t radiating the same passion, that somehow there was something wrong with me – or with the experience. That somehow either I didn’t deserve the program or that the program didn’t deserve me.

What saved me was, of course, the companionate love of the friends I made during that five weeks of training. (Our leader, Dusti Deaver, made sure to fill our hours with group-building activities, from road-building and meal preparation to parties and, yes, massages.) Those bonds carried me through two fumbling years as a youth directorship – as did my subsequent connections with the people at my new church, First Presbyterian in Portland, Texas.

I never caught the passion for pastoral work – perhaps because the ministry and I didn’t share some of the commonalities so vital to Cavanagh’s description of passionate love. But I stood by my commitment to the church, just as the church stood by me – and, even though I didn’t know it at the time, all this companionate love in south Texas was laying the ground work for all the passionate loves I relish in my life now, from teaching and networking to service and writing this very blog, here in a New England coffee shop that, like so many things, a lost lad of 23 in the Texas hill country didn’t know existed.

So when future students share valid concerns that they didn’t feel what they hoped to feel during their volunteer work, I’ll likely mention Sarah Cavanagh’s blog, and add how sometimes passionate love doesn’t lead to companionate love – sometimes it’s the other way around.

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