I haven’t written a blog since April of this year. I have not truly reflected on any part of my year in South Africa since then. I sat down to write something many times, starting with a few sentences and stopping. But, I never felt like anything I was thinking or feeling was worth the process to think it out and write it. I was never excited to share anything I was feeling or experiencing. As far as my life in South Africa nothing was feeling new or exciting, it was just my life. Then came the time for the big trip home. To be honest I was ready to go home. My year in South Africa was incredible in many ways, but it was also one of the toughest experiences I’ve ever had. There were people that were hard to leave and things that I knew I would miss, but I felt I was ready to be back home and start being the person I had developed into over the 11 months in SA, I was ready to start working in the vocation that I felt called to. I had moved on… I thought.
After the excitement of being back home and seeing friends and family again began to fade I felt lost. More lost than I’ve ever felt before. I spent most of my days sitting alone in my parent’s house watching TV, filling out job applications, and yearning for something that I couldn’t get a hold of. I had no job, no purpose, no income, either emotionally or financially. I was bored. I told people stories about South Africa, when they asked but for the most part I avoided talking about it, I rarely got past what we called the “elevator conversation”. Basically a 2-3 minute conversation covering the basics of my year: placement, jobs, food, and one word to sum it up, or one phrase like “yeah, it was great… really great”. Then whoever had asked the question would usually respond with “wow, it’s so amazing you went, we’re glad you’re home”… I was grateful for the compliment and the welcome home but what I was more grateful for was the short conversation. I felt as if my time in South Africa was this weird dream that I was waking up from. It was a dream I was trying to tuck away, appreciate, but move on from. I thought that because I didn’t have this typical, amazing experience, or that in my eyes my experience didn’t stack up to other peoples that it wasn’t worth talking about. I told the basic stories, showed the pictures to those who would look and listen but I never shared the things that were scratching away at me, I never shared the true joys and the true tragedies that I saw and experienced. And no one asked to hear it. I think it came down to the fact that because I had shared that I had struggled and that I was happy to behome people (myself included) decided I had nothing to process, and that I was “over it”.
When it came time to decide on whether or not to go to the re-entry event (a YAGM wide event, where all of us from the 2011-2012 year come together to process our years and have amazing dance parties) I had pretty much decided not to go. I told myself it was because I didn’t want to leave my new job for a day because it was new and that I shouldn’t ask for that time off. Truth is I was terrified to go to re-entry. Terrified that I would be the “Debbie downer” of the group. The girl who didn’t have a "good" year, the girl who struggled. After some serious thinking and a push from fellow YAGMs I decided to go. I was excited to see the other YAGMs that even though I had only spent minimum amounts of time with them, meant so much to me, but as far as talking about my year I felt like running in the other direction. But I must say that from the first joyous hug in the airport in Chicago to last tear- filled hug two days later I felt no desire to run, in fact I felt like I was finally ready to share.
Words can’t describe the feeling of seeing all of those people again. There is something insanely special about the YAGM community. We are all so massively different in many ways, but when it comes to the core of who we all are, when it comes to our souls, we are all very much the same. And when you find that bond in a group of people there is no escaping it. There is a feeling of complete comfort. Hugs are longer, holding hands isn’t weird, and randomly crying on someone’s shoulder or laughing until you can’t breathe is total common place. It’s truly beautiful. Our group of 2011-2012 YAGMs are a special breed, haha; we have an uncanny way of going from total goof-balls to very silent and introspective people at the drop of a hat. We know when to let each other cry and we know when to make each other laugh. There’s nothing like it.
I found great comfort in my small group. It was a random mixture of volunteers with a small group leader (usually an alum from a previous year). I can’t say anything but amazing things about my group. It was a totally random group, most of us from different country experiences, but from the minute we all came together we were a family. It provided me with a space to truly open up about my year. To share every high and every low. But, more importantly it allowed me to hear about other people’s experiences to hear their highs and their lows. There were times where as I sat there listening to people talk that it was like I was telling the story, our thoughts, our struggles and our joys were all so similar. I realized I wasn’t alone. And I think that was the biggest and best gift I could have ever received from my YAGM community.
A major moment for me at re-entry was a reflective prayer service on the second night. It is very quiet, very soulful, very intimate. In true YAGM form there are plenty of candles and singing and prayer. It was after the first full day of discussion and reflection for our small groups and I knew it would all spill over soon. As we all gathered we eventually took each other’s hands, and as we sat there in holding onto each other, the dam broke. After praying alone, praying with a few others and eventually praying with my MUD (South Africa) family tears just began to flow… I cried alone, I cried while being comforted, I cried while comforting others… I cried for South Africa, I cried for all the times I let my struggles get the best of me, I cried for all the people that I would miss, I cried for Lucky, I cried for my fellow YAGM, I cried out of regret, I cried out of loneliness, I cried out of fear, I just cried…
I would be lying if I told you that once I dried my eyes and left the room of candles that I got my act together, the complete opposite in fact. I continued to have random bouts of tears for a solid hour or so after leaving the room where we held our reflective prayer service. People would come up with comforting hugs and words and they would ask “what’s wrong?” but I had no idea… all I could come up with was “I’m just so tired”. And I was, I was exhausted…. I had held so much in for so long and I had finally felt comfortable enough to let it all go, and that process was utterly exhausting.
After a pretty rockin dance party and some sleep I actually woke up refreshed. I felt like I had been washed clean. As if I could compare my rush of tears to the rains that come after the dry season. I was ready to tell the stories I wasn’t ready to tell before. I was beginning to see my year in South Africa completely differently than I had before. I looked at my pictures with new eyes. There was more light in the joys and more meaning in the tragedies. Where at one point there was a feeling of spite, there was now a feeling of appreciation. This feeling didn’t take away the struggles that I faced, didn’t erase all the hurt… but it brought a new power to the positive, and if there is one thing we all know it’s that light can always shine through the dark.
I realized that I shouldn’t hide any part of my story, but rather balance my story. Not just make it about the hard things or just the good things, but share all of it. And that’s what I started doing, and people listened. And I learned that just as I will never forget their stories, they weren’t forgetting mine. And we began praying for the same people and rejoicing in the same joys. I mean, it doesn’t get much more amazing than that. I discovered a new found desire to know as many stories as I could. I had realized that I had been avoiding reading other volunteers blogs, looking at their pictures, or asking them questions because I was scared that I would be jealous of their experience, because for some crazy reason I wasn’t finding the “amazing” in my own experience.
Leaving that group of people was gut-wrenching. I feel like I could have stayed at that retreat center for another week and still not feel like I had had enough. I am finally processing things the way I should have all along. I am acknowledging every part of my experience and I am owning up to it all. And it feels amazing. It is hard and it will be hard to do alone at first, but it’s a journey that was fueled by community and friendship but needs to be continued alone for a while, and then when I come through I will be all that more prepared to share what I truly learned.
I realize how incredibly blessed I am to have spent the time I did in South Africa, to have learned the lessons that I learned, and I am thankful for every joy, but even more-so I am thankful for every struggle. So thank you South Africa, you changed myself and I will carry you with me forever.
To my YAGM community, to each of you who actually read all 2,000 words of this rambling, thank you… thank you for listening, thank you for sharing, that you for holding my hand, and thank you for the hugs. I will be bursting with love for each of you forever.