Tuesday, November 5, 2013

T.J. Tennesseems REAL (Part 1): Ghost Ranch, the Karl Complex, Acting Differently, and the Truth

Let's kick this off with a horrid, awkward picture. Why?
(Me, Emily, and Alaylay)

I know, I know. We haven't spoken in a while, you guys. It's been about a month or so. But come on. If you aren't my mom and you've seriously been dying to know what's been happening with me and my year in Nashville, then you need a life. Plain and simple. And that's my tough love to you for the day. Sorry that I had to get so real with you for a second, but actually I'm not, because now I'm about to get even more real. Can you even handle it? I don't even care what your answer is. More tough love. Don't worry. You will be stronger for it.

Before I start this blog, I have to thank a bunch of people for letting me steal their pictures without asking for their permission whilst using them for my own gain: Alasia, Ashley, Jay, Jeff, Tavi, Tricia...I thank you all. I never take pictures, and you guys do, and this is your punishment. If I ever win some kind of award for this blog or series of pictures, you will not receive any credit or compensation. You guys needed a blow to your egos anyway. Get over yourselves. Anyone can take a picture, and I'm only slightly grateful that you guys take great pictures of me and my obnoxious face.


See? More real.

But in all seriousness, I haven't written in a while and a lot has happened, so I'm going to display a series of awesome events through (other peoples') pictures.

And I promise that from here on out, if it gets too real for you, I'll hold your hand.

Ghost Ranch, the Karl Complex, Acting Differently, and the Truth
Reunion. What up?
(Former Belfast YAVs, including Karl & Kendra, who served in Belfast the year before ours)

Ghost Ranch is a Presbyterian haven in New Mexico used for conferences, events, etc. With the beautiful backdrop of desert, open sky, and God-sculpted rock formations, it is also therapeutic, and is appropriately used as a place for healing. So of course it makes sense that it is where YAVs who have just finished a year of service (in this case 2012-2013) go to reconnect with their fellow volunteers/YAVA/YAV staff, reflect on the past 12 months, get a solid spiritual feeding, and in some ways, receive closure. This event is called Re-Entry.

Belfast YAVs Again

Some of Ghost Ranch was comfortably predictable, which I appreciated. Plenty of time to catch up with the group you served with, with great people you befriended at orientation before they went off to their different site and that you kept in touch with during your year, to discuss your site with the good folks who run the program in Kentucky.

Some things were surprising. I got to meet Karl and his wife Kendra in person. This was significant to me, because I heard so much about him during my year in Belfast. He wasn't just a YAV before me, he was thee YAV before me. He was at the 174 Trust the year before I was. He was at Woodvale Methodist the year before I was. I got to meet him for two reasons:

1.) He did a second YAV year in Tucson, which means he got to go to Ghost Ranch. Also, can I just point out that 174 Trust/Woodvale Methodist both hosted two YAVs in a row who went on to do second years? There's definitely something seriously awesome about those placements.

2.) Anna goes to Columbia Seminary with him and became his friend. Anna is very bossy and pushy, so I would have inevitably met him whether I was willing to or not. Also, I'm kidding. Anna would never push me to do something I'm uncomfortable with. Though one time she peeled several of my oranges and threw the peelings in various areas of my flat.

Me and David hugging some guy. I can't tell who it is.
David, who is it?

It was surreal to meet Karl. I say this because when I first got to Belfast, it felt like people who worked with him wouldn't shut up about him. I heard how funny Karl was, how smart/wise Karl was, how much Karl had started at Woodvale, which was a new placement during his year. Because of this, I initially kept comparing myself to him--a dude I had never met. I developed and forced a short-lived unnecessary Karl Complex upon myself. This was admittedly stupid, and is now hilarious to me.

People who "kept talking" about Karl--which means they mentioned him two or three times over a span of 3 months--were dealing with the fact that they loved him, and he amicably just left their lives. It had nothing to do with me. Besides, the classic cliche is true: Karl and I are different people. Different people have different strengths, weaknesses, blessings, and gifts. Once I realized this and briefly met Karl during an impromptu skype session with another friend in Tucson, I stopped resenting the poor guy. He didn't even know I was resenting him.

I remember at one point I told my former site coordinator Doug Baker about my Karl Complex. He didn't laugh, but I could tell he was tickled. "Well, T.J.," Doug said, typically thoughtful with his word choice. "Karl is a great YAV. I actually think you two would get along, so I find this amusing." He said something like that anyway, and he was right. Karl is funny, a good leader, and smart/wise. I definitely dig the guy and I'm really glad I got to meet him in person, got to know him better, laugh with him, and reflect on Belfast with him. I look forward to seeing him again later this year, because I'll definitely be hitting up ATL, and he will definitely be seeing me, whether he wants to or not, because Anna.

My advice to YAVs both present and future, don't develop a Karl Complex. A Karl Complex is insecurity-enhancing, shallow, petty, and a waste of your time. You will regret having it later. If you ever encounter a YAV who did excellent the year before you, approach it differently than I did. Embrace the fact that the YAV before you did a wonderful job, that they received/distributed love in your community, that they represented your program well, and that you and that person will have a lot to talk about should you ever meet them. It's not always easy, but it's the way it should be, my babies. Remember: Nobody likes a Karl Complex.

Karl, when you read this, I would have told you that I was writing about you, but I didn't have your phone number. Also, do you like my new haircut? More on that later. Also, I love you. More on that later.

"YAVlings of Ghost Ranch, hear thy cry! Weep in joy, for T.J. is thy ruler!"

As I said earlier, some things about Ghost Ranch were surprising. I knew I was acting differently, but it surprised me in what ways I was acting differently. Reverse-Culture shock? It barely touched me. But believe me, I was still coping. For me, I was simply more distant. More withdrawn. More mysterious and sexy...okay, maybe not the last bit, but definitely the first two bits. During my first month of Nashville, I figured I would have found myself trying to get to know my roommates right away and exploring my new home like woah, but I didn't. We had our orientation meetings, and then I'd retreat to a coffee shop to read or write. Now, I still read and write frequently, but now I definitely find myself getting to know people better and exploring new places most weekends. But it took Re-Entry's uncomfortable yet needed exploration of self to help me get from there to where I am now. I feel a lot more like myself again, and I definitely didn't during the first month of Nashville.

Not Ghost Ranch

Something shocking to me was that not everyone has an amazing, perfect year. Some placements don't go as planned, some site coordinators and YAVs have difficulties with each other, and some communities straight-up go to hell. For some people, all three happen! Damn! So some people came to Re-Entry hella sad, or confused, or angry, or all three, or all three and more. This confused me, since I got really close with my roommate, had a blast with my community, considered my site coordinator to be an extremely valuable mentor, and I learned a lot/had so much fun at my placements. I was expecting to celebrate our year, and some of my fellow volunteers came to Ghost Ranch broken-hearted? Who do I blame for this? What is this crap?

Hay hay hay! Hold your horses! (Anyone notice how I spelled "hey" and then talked about horses? I hope you laughed.) I'm speaking the truth, but it's not to be scandalous. I've never been a hater on the YAV program, nor will I ever be. I have a couple of things to say about this controversial truth that is not that controversial...

1.) The people have a right to be upset. I'm not going to preach and be like "You guys, get over it." The fact of the matter is, some of my friends had a rough year.

2.) I will not feel awful for having an awesome year. In fact, friends who had a rough year were so grateful and supportive of me for having such a positive experience, and I really appreciated that. It reminded me that the YAV community is not a bitter community, but a passionate one.

3.) The YAV year was still life-changing, and that is something we all signed up for and all received, good year or hard year. Positive things from it are still being processed and are on the way.

4.) YAVA (Young Adult Volunteer Alum) who had atrociously difficult years still attend YAV events and support the program. One of them even made a book about it. David Lamont reminded us that being a YAV means that you are a risk-taker. To me, risks are a risk for a reason. If the risk blows up in your face (or at least seems like it does), choose to be the type of person who is still glad to have accepted the challenge. It may take time to choose that, and that's okay.

5.) The YAV program is worth the risk.

Still Not Ghost Ranch

6.) With some of the stories I heard, I can't believe some of my fellow volunteers survived, but you know what? They survived. And they are tougher than nails! Some of them don't even realize the change they've gone through. I reconnected with some people at re-entry who were angry about their year, but hoo-doggy, they are stronger people now. Some people I met who were quiet at orientation are vocal now. Some who seemed less confident in talking to others were making a point to get to know people better that they didn't know as well at orientation. Some people just stand taller now, or crack jokes more, or play things off with more grace. Keep in mind that I'm speaking of people who had hard years.

7.) People who have a rough year during a year of service is not strictly a YAV thing. That is an any service program thing. What about the Peace Corps? Does everyone have fun with the Peace Corps? No, you guys. Not everyone has fun with the Peace Corps. (But again, some do!)

8.) I'm so grateful for the people who run the YAV program. It's not an easy job, and I know you guys do everything within your power to help all YAVs have a great year. I bet you don't get told thank you enough, so thank you guys for everything you do. The YAV program has changed my life for the better in so many ways, and that couldn't have happened without your help. Butt-kissing accomplished.

9.) Anyone who had a hard year, I love you guys, and I hope I made that obvious to those I encountered. I hope this post did not downplay or belittle your hardships and experiences, nor make you sound silly. Some of the things you told me about would have made me cry if I was in your position, and I admire how bad ass you all are. After every storm there is a rainbow, and if you turn off the bathroom lights and whisper my name three times into the mirror, I will appear and take you to a rainbow and we will dance upon it. We can even dance the jitterbug if you want.

Part 2 on the way!

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