In the past seven months I’ve been learning a lot of lessons. A lot of these lessons have been beautiful, joyful and exciting. However, a lot of these lessons have also been really challenging, frustrating and disappointing. In my last blog, I wrote about loving myself through recognizing and appreciating my good. In this post, I’m going to explore something different. This is my reflection on what it means to love myself through recognizing the bad and weak parts of myself. This year I jumped into a situation so far out of my comfort zone that I’ve been forced to see parts of myself that I never wanted to see, never wanted to believe were real. And this hurts. This is disappointing. This is challenging. My instant reaction is to deny, to justify, to twist my thoughts and reality as much as I can to hide these truths. I believe that I am a good person, but I have a lot to work through to be a great person, to be the kind of person that I truly admire, that truly reflects what I say I believe in. Sometimes I can be very judgmental. I have some pretty deep rooted negative biases. I can be selfish, unkind and hypocritical.
Through these lessons, I’m continuously learning more about how God works through people, how God can work through me, through life and the seemingly most insignificant of things to show His presence, love and guidance, to show that we are part of something greater than ourselves and that we are never alone. I’m learning more and more what it means to be in this human experience, that wherever you go, humans are humans: full of life, love, laughter, pain, struggles, gratefulness, generosity, selfishness, regret, fear, bravery, weakness, the beautiful and the terrible, and an unimaginable amout of stories. I’m better understanding the value and necessity of connecting with people on a personal level, through individual relationships and through really seeing a person with a story and a consciousness, not just a body that I’m passing, not just as a circumstance or as “different”.
I'm learning to understand and practice the difference between hating an idea, a norm, a system, a practice instead of hating the person who practices it. I’m learning that my ideas about what’s right and wrong, what’s acceptable and excusable, what’s condemnable and worthy of judgement are completely limited. And I include these because even though I’m not supposed to, even though my higher self doesn’t want to, I still condemn and judge people too frequently. I’m not saying it’s wrong to have ideas, convictions, or opinions. It’s good to have these, to have a code to live by and reasonings behind this code. What I mean is that if I believe that my opinion, my view of the rightness or wrongness of a situation is the absolute truth, I’m lost because my understanding is so limited to my own experience. I need to be able to say, “this is my opinion, and its based on these experiences, this study and education, but I’m open to listening to and contemplating other opinions and ideas.” I am better understanding the importance of genuinely seeing and treating all people like they are important, like I care about them and they are worth my time, because I really believe in their value and truly love them as a piece of this connected experience.
I’m learning to see the power and influence of systems, and what my place in these systems are. I’m learning to be aware of how I contribute to problems and issues through being complicit, through being uninformed and through being a bystander, and how I need to educate myself, to listen to peoples’ stories and perspectives that are different than mine, to question the “known”, the “truth”, the “way things are”, the “norms” that these systems have created. I’m learning what it means to have privilege, and to not. What it means to be rich versus having richness of life, to be poor versus having limited self-identity and being blocked by the idea of the necessity of material wealth, while leaving behind or smothering spiritual richness and completeness. I’m learning humility, to recognize and regulate my ego, my pride, my selfishness, and to understand my tendencies and my weaknesses.
I can’t just push these realizations away and not recognize and appreciate the lessons that God, that people, are trying to teach me. How can I ever grow, how can I ever get better and be better if I just keeping pushing away the hard and ugly lessons? I want to be better. I want to truly, unconditionally love people. I want to truly be open-minded, non-judgmental, to have grace for people. I want to be able to treat every human like they are an important part of this world, a valuable creation of God, a person with lessons to teach and with a soul to care about. I want to have the confidence to stand up for what's right, instead of cowering when I’m faced with a challenging situation. I want to be able to step away from the crowd, to step away from what's expected, to stand alone to defend what I believe in. Too often, I stand back quietly, too afraid to push myself to take action and stand up for people or for the ideas that I believe in. I justify myself by telling myself that I’m doing enough just by knowing what is good and what is right, even if I don’t defend it.
I spend so much time learning about, reflecting on, complaining about other people's injustices to the world, to humanity, and not nearly enough time on my own. How can I expect myself to be able to make good, positive change in the world if I'm too prideful, too scared, too self-righteous to make change in myself? To even face the things that I need to change in myself? My whole life I’ve had these big, sparkly ideas about changing the world, about fighting for justice and human rights, about making a macro influence. But I've been neglecting the fight, the change that I can have the most control over: my personal one. I've been so enraptured by the idea of making an impact that would be noticed by the world, and so neglectful of the personal change that is my biggest responsibility. I can’t truly expect that I will be able to do positive work on a large scale if I’m not even able to do the difficult work on my individual level. I'm a lot of talk, but I've been realizing recently that in a lot of areas, I’m not much more than that.
This is what this year as a YAV has done for me, and through me eventually on a larger scale. It has given me a big mirror, with a reflection that is extremely complicated, with parts of light and good that I’m learning to better appreciate and develop, and parts of shadow and weakness that I’ve been fighting to cover up, to change the angle so I don’t have to see them, but that are calling to me to give them the appropriate attention.
Truly it is a gift to have this capacity of consciousness, of being a human creation. I have the gift to be able to develop, change and grow myself. A gift to myself, to be the best version of myself that I can be, the version of myself that exists in idea, that exists through God, but that hasn’t been realized yet. It is waiting and wanting to be realized. A gift to humanity, through the ripples that it will create. I truly believe that one speck of bad ripples out and affects all of creation. But one speck of good, of beautiful, of light also ripples out and affects all of creation. We are not an individual part of creation. I am not an individual experience. I am part of the whole, the oneness of creation. If I become the best version of myself I can be, the whole of creation will be slightly better. And it's a gift to the creator, who knows what we are capable of, what I am capable of. God knows my best version and is just waiting for me to realize it myself. I believe that God, that the spirit of life and love and light rejoices when creation realizes its potential, when creation truly lives through its goodness and love.
What I’m now striving for, is the ability to say that I would prefer to live in a dirt house, with just the basic necessities to survive, without any shiny possessions or fancy titles, but to be the best person I can be, to be the absolute best version of myself, than to be a mediocre version of myself with a fancy title and “impressive” accomplishments and material wealth. The truth is, as of this point in my life, I cannot honestly say this. As of this point in my life, what I think I would prefer is the material comforts, the societal success. But this isn’t what my soul is searching for, this isn’t what God meant for my life to be. God didn’t create me to be able to say that I have “x” position, living in “x” neighborhood with “x” awards. God created me to be the best version of myself possible. And so now, my fight is to really reflect this spirit, this purpose, and not the one that has been created in me by a broken society.
Through these lessons, I am recognizing more how important it is to candidly, honestly see the bad, the ugly, the weakness and recognize it. To see the truth of these, and instead of making excuses for and justifying them, realistically looking at where they come from, how they have been formed, and what my tendencies and habits around these bad thoughts, reactions, or lack of actions are. It’s also important to say that I don’t think it's healthy or impressive to just focus on these parts of myself. It's also important to honor and recognize the good and the beautiful that is in me, and that I put into the world. And I think being a human means that continuously we have to learn how to balance the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly. To balance the attention and the focus we give to these, the energy and power we give to these. And I don’t think it's healthy or useful to punish myself, to judge myself for these parts that are weak. The treatment that I want to give to other people, I must first learn how to give to myself. So, I need to learn how to show myself compassion and understanding, while also allowing myself to see all of myself, and to give constructive criticism as necessary. To give pep talks and applause as necessary. To make change as necessary.
Today I found myself cring tears of joy in the bathroom at work, after watching Oprah's Golden Globes speech. These tears were celebrations of how amazing it is that we are in a time where some of the most influential people in the United States came together in solidarity for the women who are survivors of sexual, mental, and emotional abuse, who are represented by the #MeToo movement.How right it is that a black woman was on stage receiving a prestigious award and had the ability, the courage, the heart to give a speech speaking out against corruption, against violence, against privilege, for the whole world to see, and that she received a standing ovation and inspired tears of joy in those watching. The tide is changing, and it will continue to, because of amazing people who really do care to fight for, stand up for and speak out against injustice.
When I came back from the bathroom, still with this energy pulsing through me, one of my coworkers asked me what was going on. The women in the room are all a part of the project that works with women who have experienced domestic violence. A large part of this work is educating women that domestic violence is not okay, that they don’t deserve abuse, and that they have the right to report it. So I explained to them what has been happening with the #MeToo movement, and we had a wonderful conversation about the hope that at some point, through the work of Paz y Esperanza and other organizations and advocates, the women of Peru will have a voice, will be able to stand in solidarity with each other overcoming fear, with support from the world. Being involved in this work here, I’ve been able to broaden my understanding and perspectives of issues in the United Sates through learning about issues that are mirrored in Peru. Seeing this movement happening from the outside, from a different context has made me appreciate it in a different way. Before it would have been a celebration just for my own home, for the people of the United States, but now I’m able to see it as so much bigger. The issues that we learn about aren’t centralized, they don’t just affect one group of people. These issues have global impacts, and the healing of these issues also has global impact. And I’m able to discuss these ideas with my coworkers here, who have been teaching me so much more than they could know. They’ve been teaching me about the world, about what it means to be a fighter and an advocate for social justice, what it means to be in the trenches. And they’ve been helping me learn about myself.
At the end of this conversation, one of my coworkers said to me, “Alyson, tú tienes un buen corazón” (“You have a good heart”). She explained that when I began to cry, she thought that it was about something personal, but instead it was about something much bigger, something that affected people that I don’t know personally, and that that shows the kind of heart that I have, the kind of person that I am. When she gave me this beautiful compliment, when she in that moment saw my soul, I couldn’t accept the compliment, I couldn’t spend just a moment appreciating this quality that I have. I thanked her, but behind that thank you I felt the need to show her that I’m not really that good, that I was experiencing personal benefits from the movement too. I responded by saying that it’s very important to me because it does affect people I know personally, because the women who I know and love who have experienced abuse are being shown solidarity, are being supported, are being inspired, and empowered. And this is true, I have been thinking about the women I know personally who are being lifted up by this movement, but also I do have a good heart, I do love and care for and celebrate the successes and the empowerment of people that I don’t know, and will never meet. And this is a beautiful thing, I am so thankful that I am this way, that I have this heart, that I am this person. And when people see me for who I am, I shouldn’t try to hide it, I shouldn’t shy away from it or feel like I can’t accept the compliment. I should appreciate who and how I am, and through that I will better appreciate and recognize the other people in the world. This is what I want to teach others, what I want to be cultivating: self-love, appreciation for beautiful and valuable qualities, appreciation for good hearts, the ability to love others better. I don’t want to teach timidity, shame, or self-depreciation. But this means that I have to overcome these qualities in myself, and try to help others overcome them as well. I want to teach people to value who they are, the qualities they have, and to not diminish their worth as a human.
So many issues of the world exist because someone told someone else that they are worth less, that they deserve less. And too many people in this world believe it. When people learn to care for themselves, to appreciate themselves, and to stand up for what they deserve, what’s when movements like #MeToo happen. When we learn to appreciate ourselves is when we learn to find our voice, to use our voice. I’m still in the process of finding my voice, and I don’t want to keep it to myself. We were created to be in community, to work and live and love in community. I want to share my voice with everyone. I want to use my voice to speak out, to sing for, to scream for the people who haven’t been allowed to find theirs. I’m so thankful for the people who have been doing this throughout history, and for the amazing people in this time who are inspiring and making change with their voice. I have qualities and purposes that if I don’t appreciate, I won’t be able to use to their full potential, and won’t be able to achieve all that I’m capable of achieving. God wants us to see and appreciate our qualities so that we can use them to change the world.
In the past month, the U.S. has celebrated Halloween, Thanksgiving, and transitioned into the beginning celebrations of Christmas. I LOVE celebrating these holidays with my family and friends, I love the energy and excitement in the atmosphere, the decorations, the music, and the discussion of plans and joys and even the worries that the holiday season brings. This year this season has been very different for me (naturally something about living in a foreign country with distinct culture and traditions will do that). Before coming to Peru, I hadn’t spent much time considering what it would be like to be away from my community and culture for the holiday season. As these holidays approached, I experienced some stress and sadness that I wouldn’t be able to celebrate the way I am accustomed to with the people I love in the states. But this stress and sadness wasn’t able to last for any significant amount of time, because my wonderful host family saw the opportunity to celebrate with me and the other volunteer living with us (an awesome girl from Hawaii who I have come to love dearly) as an exciting way to bring together our cultures and as a way to serve us lovingly.
For Halloween, the other volunteer and I decided to make costumes out of our very limited wardrobe options (both of us are practicing living simply, so we have budget restraints and neither of us allow ourselves to spend money on things superfluously). She decided to be a mime, as she had a black and white stripped shirt, and I decided to be a cat because I had a pair of cat ears that were given to my by a man in the “park of cats” in Lima. Halloween celebrations in Peru are very different than those in the U.S. because of the strong Catholic influence from the past hundreds of years. In my city of Andahuaylas, we had a huge parade to celebrate All Saints Day instead, and there were hundreds of children dressed in angel costumes. It was adorable, but we definitely stood out. Our host family thought it was hilarious that we dressed up, and to celebrate the day they took us out to dinner and made an event of it.
Then, last week was Thanksgiving. The emotions leading up to this were even stronger, so I explained to my host family the holiday and traditions, and they decided that of course we should have a thanksgiving dinner and take the day to be intentionally appreciative of the blessings in our lives. Now, this was the strangest thanksgiving dinner of my life, in the most wonderful way. We each decided a dish to make, and we ended up with this list: sweet potato casserole, Indian curry vegetables, Italian cream sauce with chicken, and cheesecake. It was absolutely random, and each dish had a very distinctly different flavor, but it was wonderfully delicious (I had been craving Indian food and something that tasted familiar). Then we sat down to eat dinner (at 10:30pm, which is only a couple of hours later than we normally eat), and we took turns going around the table describing the blessings in our lives that we are thankful for- our families (for the other volunteer and I, the one we have been welcomed into here and ours back home), our ability to sit together as people from different parts of the world and walks of life and bring our cultures together, and a list of other beautiful things. It was a late night celebrated with friends and family, with a familiarly tangible excitement in the air, and with a bubbling and strong feeling of awe and gratitude in my heart.
And now it is the Christmas season, which is the hardest to be away from home. But once again my host family has embraced this time as an opportunity to learn about my traditions and to teach me about theirs. They have been intentional about including me in the decorations (they even let me decorate the tree) and they love when we play Michael Buble Christmas music. I’ve learned that we are probably going to have 15 or more people at our house for Christmas dinner, and many of these guests are friends from different parts of Peru. I’ve also learned that the turkey will be cooked in an oven that we will rent out at another building, which is the custom (most families in the city will be renting out ovens). I also learned that we will be eating Christmas dinner at midnight on the hour, and that it’s normal for people to stay up until 5:00am celebrating, with fireworks included.
out of all of the cross cultural expleriences I am having, these have been some of the most meaningful. I was stressed about not being able to celebrate with my family and friends back home, but I have a family and friends and a home here now, as well. Of course I still miss my community in the states deeply, but my community has grown to include the amazing people who have embraced me here.
Yesterday I was standing here, above the plaza of a very small town high and deep in the Andes mountains. I was surrounded by strange and beautiful plants, playing children, friendly people, Andean music, the smells of local food, and the view of high, proud rolling mountains blanketed by a bright blue sky and huge white clouds. I was thinking about the people in my life who have helped me become the person I am today, the person that is standing here in this incredible place, and I was filled with an indescribable feeling of gratitude. Gratitude for the people who have come and gone and my life throughout the years and have helped inspire me to recognize, open and appreciate parts of myself that I have been able to grow through in order to come and be in this place. I am part of an incredible experience, and incredible God, spirit, life source that breathes and moves through all things and brings everything to their place. This life is in me, in the people I love, in the strange plants, the cows in the field, the children playing in this plaza, through the mountains, the skies, the sun and stars, and galaxies and universes that I can't comprehend. I am here living as a part of this and I am so grateful.
I am so grateful to be living this experience, to have had the opportunity, the encouragement, and the motivation to come to this place. I am surrounded by wonderful people who have welcomed me with open arms: my host family, the people of the church, the people in the organization I'm working with, and random people I'm meeting every day. I've been given permission to integrate myself into this community and to allow the impact of my presence here. I've been invited to use my knowledge and skills to help do amazing work here.
I am working with an incredible organization here called Paz y Esperanza. This is a large organization with locations in different cities in Peru, as well as Bolivia in Ecuador. Here in Andahuaylas they have two projects. One is working with women in the rural communities around Andahuaylas who are facing gender inequality and domestic violence to be able to exercise their social, economic and political rights. The other is the Intercultural Bilingual Education, a project which works with schools, teachers and parents in small communities to improve the education while also maintaining the culture and native language of the communities. Most of my days are spent traveling with Paz to different communities around Andahuaylas in order to do this work.
My experiences this far have been diverse, challenging and beautiful. I've seen sites that have been breathtaking and painful. I've eaten food I never imagine myself eating, such as guinea pig and animal organs I'll refrain from naming.I felt emotions in extremes and patterns that I've never felt before. I've been taught new ways to do many things. My first day here, I was taught a new way to sliced tomatoes, because my method of slicing tomatoes was not correct for the type of salad I was helping the ladies at the office make. So I awkwardly relearned how to slice a tomato. This experience has become my metaphor for my life here. This was only the first of thousands of learning experiences and change. I've also been taught new mealtimes (dinner is around 9:00pm), a new type of currency (soles), new streets, product brands, forms of transportation, Spanish, and a new way to greet people (a kiss on the cheek). I have experienced the most intense feeling of fear in my life, as well as some of the most amazing feelings of wonderment and joy. I have consistently been learning new things and having to retrain the way my brain processes, and this isn't going to stop! This is the year of rewiring, reprogramming, reeducating myself.
I've only been in the city for three weeks, and it already feels like home. I am consistently being affirmed by my experiences that is exactly where I am meant to be. I am growing into a new version of myself, a better version of myself, and this journey has only just begun!
Hello friends :)
This is a description of my experience with the YAV orientation so far!
The first week of orientation was in New York with all of the YAV volunteers. During this week we were able to meet the office staff of the YAV program as well as people who have served YAV years in the past. These "YAV alumns" acted as small group leaders and shared pieces of their diverse experiences and advice. Additionally, we had the opportunity to hear from Dr. J. Herbert Nelson (stated clerk of the PC(USA)), Jose Luis Casal (PC(USA) Director of World Mission), and the CrossRoads Antiracism Organization and Training program. Throughout the week we had various sessions about the expectations, values and history of the program. We also had sessions to discuss what we should expect when going into our sites, as well as the values and issues we should be consistently reflecting on throughout the year.
Buckle up, because orientation has been a wonderful, thought-provoking, challenging process of tackling big issues and complex ideas, and I'm inviting you all along for the ride!
In the core tenants of this program, it is outlined that YAVs will work to confront the systemic challenges of race, class, gender, and power, while learning to examine our own lives and actions and that YAVs serve in marginalized communities alongside local people of faith responding to poverty, violence, and injustice in our communities. Throughout the first week in New York, and throughout the past three weeks of Orientation in Lima, many of our sessions and conversations have been centered around how to live in this way, and how to better be aware of the issues that exist in our various communities. This has at many times been difficult and painful to talk about and reflect on, even though these are themes that I am very passionate about.
A large chuck of our time in orientation had been about being as informed and educated as possible about the issues facing social, economic, and environmental justice in our communities. Over the past few years I have increasingly been learning about the many social issues that the U.S. is struggling to work through and overcome. Now I have have come to a country that is experiencing this also, in its own unique way. These issues are complex, diverse, and deeply rooted, and I'm not going to be able to make any grand changes or "fix" anything in my time here. My hope is to develop a better understanding of what these issues are, how they have developed, and how these issues relate across cultural and physical borders.
As part of our orientation in Lima, we've been learning the history of the indigenous people of Peru, the Spanish invasion and conquest, and the terrorism that has existed here in the past 50 years. We've also been learning about how racism, sexism, and the drive for economic development are impacting oppressed and marginalized groups. Honestly, I am overwhelmed. I know that I am here not as an expert with great ideas, but as a learner, an invited guest to cultivate solidarity and a wider perspective on how I can make as positive of an impact as possible. In learning about the social problems that exist in Peru, in understanding that I have been called here but that I am not needed here, I've been doing a lot of self-reflection. What is my purpose this year? What can I do? How can I make the most positive impact with my limited experience and understanding of his place?
What I've decided is that I will learn to better love. I can develop reconciliation with the people in my new communities. I can strive to form greater unity. Having unity with humanity and with all of life is deeply rooted in my spirituality and values, and I have to remind myself that unity isn't something that happens on accident, even though I sometimes wish it were that way. Unity is something that I have to pursue with intentionality because I struggle to live it out fully. I have biases, I have fears, and there are things that I am uncomfortable with because they are different than what I am used to. Overcoming these biases, fears and discomforts begins with love and reconciliation. So now the main purpose of my work this year is to create unity through love and relationships with the people of my new communities, across the differences that may come up in culture, religion, race, gender, class, and life experiences. I believe that love is the most sacred and purest human experience, and when I think about this opportunity to learn more about what it means to love in this new community, I have a deep feeling of rightness. Love and unity are the purpose of this existence, the inspiration of joy, and the connection we have with all of creation. We are all one together, but that pure oneness can't be experienced without love.
I've got a long way to go and a lot to learn, but I'm excited for the journey!
I have officially begun my year of service as a Young Adult Volunteer! As I am sitting on a bed in a hostel in Lima, Peru, I am reflecting on the long, exciting, and challenging journey it has been to get to this point. In the winter I went through the extensive interview process for the program and had a number of possible sites at which I could serve. In the spring, I found out that I was accepted into the program and that I would be spending my year in Peru serving with an agency called Paz y Esperanza (Peace and Hope) with the Peru Joining Hands Network. In the summer I was actively organizing and preparing for my year, which included seeking out spiritual, emotional, and financial support from my community. In the past few months I have experienced excitement, fear, questioning, and also a deep peace. This feeling of peace exists within me because I know that this is exactly where I am meant to be. I believe that each life has a purpose, and if you live with an open mind and open soul you will be able to see the steps to fulfilling your purpose. It seems that these steps only present themselves one at a time, and there is much time spent in waiting and uncertainty. In my experience, when I am making decisions that align with my life's purpose, I am filled with joy and peace. And I have this joy and peace now, as I am starting a year of service as a volunteer in Peru.
This experience would not be possible without the people who have supported me, so I want to take this opportunity to say "muchas gracias" to the people that helped make this possible. First, thank you to my family, who has had the most significant impact on who I am today. Thank you for the support and encouragement you have shown me since I was a young girl in discovering my capabilities and my calling, and for loving me so well. Thank you to the people who walked alongside me and provided support during the interview process. Thank you to the people who celebrated with me when I found out I was accepted into the program and would be serving in Peru. Finally, thank you, thank you to the people who have been praying for me since the beginning of this journey and who are still praying for me now, and to the people who made this year possible by supporting me through gifts and donations. It has been amazing and beautiful to see the community around me and to feel loved by so many people: people from my family and wonderful friends, my church family at Waverly Road Presbyterian, my community in Chattanooga, and now my new community through YAV.
I have spent a week in New York for orientation and training, boarded a plane and arrived in Peru, and spent two days in training here in Lima. Through this short time with the YAV program I have been affirmed that this is without a doubt where I am meant to be. I am thankful for this opportunity to be in this place at this time, and for the opportunities I will have to have growth through these experiences, to gain wisdom and perspective from these people, and to better understand what it means to be in a community of love across boundaries and diversities.
If if you have any questions about my journey this far, feel free to ask them in the comments! Also if you want more information about the YAV program, see my About page, or go to:
Something that has become one of the mantras of my life is learn to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations. I have come to understand and appreciate that the most growth and learning happens when I push myself to get out of my comfort zone and to step into experiences that may scare me. When I push myself, challenge myself, allow myself to step to up to higher standards, I begin to see that I am capable of so much more than my fearful mind sometimes allows me to see. Thankfully, my adventurous soul has grabbed ahold of this discovery, and I find my comfort zone growing quickly and significantly. Experiences and ideas that would have made me completely uncomfortable just a couple of years ago are now things that I embrace. I am learning to be comfortable in the midst of discomfort, through knowing that discomfort will probably inspire and grow me more than I could ever imagine.