Monday, September 28, 2015

Five years later

Every August, YAVs go through a week of Orientation in Stony Point, New York and then depart for their respective sites, where they will spend the next year engaged in mission service, simple living, and Christian community, navigating an altogether special, challenging time of life.

Every September, YAVs who just finished their year of service gather at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico for the Transition Retreat, an opportunity to reunite, share stories, and process the year. It’s a time to think about “letting go (endings), letting be (the neutral zone), and letting begin (new beginnings).” 

Maggie and I joked that there were a number of people we liked a lot more at Transition than at Orientation. Something about a shared experience (even on opposite sides of the globe) – a shared having-the-crap-knocked-out-of-you – a shared joy – bound us all together and gave us a common understanding in a way that was just not possible thirteen months prior at Orientation.

It has been five years since I went through Orientation. In God’s wonderful way, I now have the privilege of helping structure/run our brand new Indianapolis YAV site; our three YAVs, Megan, Madison, and Liz, have been here for about a month now, and are doing great work.

I come back to this blog every so often to revisit some of my favorite memories and people. I will never stop thanking my 22-year-old self for updating it regularly. It’s amazing and saddening how many things are forgotten with time. There are things I didn’t write about that I still remember, though foggily. It’s also fascinating how memory changes with time.

For example, looking back on it now, I’d have to say that one of the crowning achievements of my YAV year, a truly mountaintop experience, took place in the month of January. School was cancelled for a day or two, essentially giving us a long weekend, and as such, most of the boarding students went home to be with their families. Out of fifty girls, only 5 or 6 of various ages stayed at Buchanan along with me and the Warden, Gracy Kochamma.

It also happened that there was a Youth Festival going on that weekend in the nearby city of Kottayam. Knowing that they would not be going home for the long weekend, the girls asked me well in advance if I thought I would be able to take them to town for the Youth Festival. As in – did I think I could get Gracy Kochamma’s permission. I wasn’t sure, but some of the older girls were encouraging and made sure I knew how to ask in Malayalam. Gracy Kochamma and I already had a good rapport at this point, and while one of the girls could have easily asked on my behalf, we thought that my asking would be a good way to butter her up :)

She said yes! But a few days later, just a couple of days before the start of the long weekend, she changed her mind. This was disappointing, but one of the older girls was sure that Gracy Kochamma could be convinced. So I went to her again, and said “please!” The pouty faces of the girls who wanted to go helped, I’m sure. And Gracy Kochamma relented. “Your risk,” she said. She wanted me to know that I was the adult in charge, and that I needed to make sure that nothing went awry during this outing.

And so the next day, we went. We got dressed and, rupees in hand, took the bus to Kottayam. We wandered the city, went shopping, and went to the Youth Festival. We even made a detour to CMS College. Ordinarily, these girls would not have been allowed on campus, but in this instance, I was HAPPY to use my foreigner privilege to waltz right in with them in tow. The security guards didn’t ask questions and the girls marveled at the campus, which they had only heard about before (and had possibly seen in a movie that was filmed there). “You could study here one day,” I told them. We watched college students walk to their classes as we shared oranges under the shade of leafy, towering tree.

We returned to the realm of Gracy Kochamma’s kind, watchful gaze before dark, as was expected, and she received the bakery treats we brought her as a ‘thank you’ with pleasure and amusement.

The above description of our ‘field trip’ may not sound that extraordinary, but it was an extraordinary day. A few months prior, I had depended on the girls in my hostel to teach me basic things…simple phrases, how to count to ten, how to wash my clothes by hand. I had to rely on other adults to teach me how to navigate the buses, how to pronounce the town names correctly, and how find my way around the bus stations. (For an outsider, none of the above is an intuitive process, and it required a lot of instruction.) I was like a child, always dependent on the kindness, guidance, and patience of others.

Four months later, I was the one doing the hand-holding. I was the accountable adult – the responsible, not-getting-us-all-lost person – trusted enough to keep other people’s children safe on our foray into the city.

Looking back, I marvel at having made that transition from ‘child’/outsider to responsible adult/agent who is part of the community. This transition and the relationships that accompanied it were by far the biggest gift of my YAV year.  

I have thought about this Youth Festival outing and its significance more than once in the years since. I’ve never been able to figure out why I didn’t write about such a monumental day. It saddens me that I never wrote about it, because as time has, indeed, shown, memories fade; I can’t remember which girls, specifically, went with me that day. I don’t even have a picture to look back at to jog my memory. I also couldn’t say with certainty whether or not we met up with Jim, but my guess it that we did, since CMS College was his YAV placement.

Though I didn’t send many emails during my YAV year, it occurred to me earlier this week that maybe I wrote to someone about this experience. Maybe an email I sent almost five years ago would contain the details that I could only grasp for now. Sure enough, I found in my ‘sent’ folder an email I sent to Levity on January 26, 2011. The paragraph regarding the Youth Festival:

Guess what, I was in 2 newspapers and on tv! There was a big “Youth Festival” last week (kids from all over India come to compete in events like traditional dance, drama, Hindi speech giving, English speech giving, etc), so there was tons of media coverage. I attended several of the events and was the only foreigner there….once one reporter started asking me questions (why are you in Kerala? What do you think about the youth festival? etc.), a bunch of them swarmed. It was overwhelming/fun/exciting. And since then, totally RANDOM people have said “I saw you on tv!” (Well, something more like “you tv seeing” - but I know what they mean). The other day I was at a parade and the driver of one of the floats waved at me and yelled “newspaper!” So I take that to mean he saw me in the newspaper. Yep, your roomie is famous ;-)

I laughed out loud to read this account, more than a little surprised. Five-years-ago Madison apparently had no awareness of what a significant moment this was in my YAV year. Looking back, I guess I never blogged about it because I didn’t think it was worth blogging about – it was nothing more than a fun story that involved my own personal fifteen minutes of fame. Ironically, prior to finding this old email, I had no recollection of that part of the story.

Sometimes it takes years to be able to recognize and interpret the truly meaningful moments in our lives. 

And so another story has been recorded for posterity. With Kerala on my mind, I can’t help but think of all of my favorite people there. Thomas John Achen, Betty Kochamma, Gracy Kochamma, Jaimol Kochamma, and more. The Buchanan and TTC boarding students. How strange to think that Aleena, my five-years-ago 5th-grader best friend, is in 10th grade now (the day we find each other on facebook will be a joyous day, indeed). Sruthy is married and has a baby. Jinta is in nursing school.  I only remember koruchu (a little) Malayalam.

Language may fade; even memory fails. But the grace and love that filled and surrounded me during that year - they will be with me for a lifetime.

Visitng Kerala two years ago, pictured with Thomas John Achen and his family