To say these past few weeks have been challenging feels like one of the biggest understatements ever. The school year has continued to move on and chug through the third quarter, and I still feel like every day has been a new learning experience as I attempted to navigate my first year as a middle school teacher. During this time I was also deciding whether or not I would continue on in a second year as a Lasallian Volunteer, and, once that decision was made, what that second year might hold for me. While these challenges were a large part of coming into the second half of my service year, another presented itself shortly before we arrived back in Tulsa in January: one of our community members was nearing the end of his four year fight with cancer.
The news was devastating, and almost as soon as I finished reading the email my mind was already racing with thoughts and questions. I found myself wondering what the year would have been like if I had known where I would be standing. I have even asked myself if I had known even a fraction of what I know now would I have said yes to serving in Tulsa when I was first asked last May? If I had chosen to seek placement elsewhere, I wouldn’t be trying to navigate the journey of losing a community member who has become an important source of wisdom and support as I move through this unique opportunity in my life. Once your mind picks up on one “what if”, it’s hard to get it to stop wandering.
All of these thoughts, however, came to a head when I rediscovered the song “The Dance” by Garth Brooks after a discussion with Martin, my LV community member. Sometimes music gives us the exact words we need to hear, and this song was no exception. On the matter of my worries and fears, the song had this to say: “And I’m glad I didn’t know, the way it all would end, the way it all would go. Our lives are better left to chance. I could have missed the pain, but I’d have had to miss the dance.” While it is easy to dwell on the pain and difficulty of walking the journey to the end of life with a community member, this chorus reminded me to look beyond the present moment and its grief and look upon our community experience as a whole.
While on paper it might seem like my community experience has been one of the most stressful parts of my service year, it has in actuality been almost the complete opposite. We came together in August having not spent any time all together in the same space, but through grace and God’s will the mix seemed to be just right. Martin and I were eager young teachers, and the Brothers in our community were more than willing to share their years of experience and teaching anecdotes to help us navigate through the craziness of the beginning of the school year. Both Brother Chris and Brother Richard were present to Martin and I from the start, and I, in return, tried to be just as present to my community members. It was this openness that set the tone for the rest of the year even as obstacles arose.
The community’s commitment helped to illustrate that simply being present to one another can create a big impact on the community as a whole. Whether it was sitting down to watch a movie on a weekend night, attending the Pawnee rodeo, feasting on one of Brother Chris’ amazing creations during community social, or sitting by the fire when the winter months started to set in, these times together became a bonding experience that allowed us to get to know each other better. Whether it was “talking shop” about dealing with difficult students or throwing around witty commentary about whatever movie we were watching, I found that both companionship and wisdom were available in spades.
The power of community presence, however, was not only palpable during these “good times” at the beginning of the year. There is power in trying to be present to each other in every moment you can be, even if it is in ways that you never imagined you would be called on to be. I think it was these experiences, handling things in the moment, helped me to understand just what the power of community can do. Things just need to be done, and the members move to accommodate this. As hospital stays became part of the equation, our community changed. Wednesday socials were held wherever the whole community could gather, shifting from the living room at the Brothers’ residence to the rooms of the care facility our community member moved into. It became a weekly ritual to join Brother Chris in his room to watch Agent Carter, enjoying each other’s presence and trading commentary as energy allowed. Each of us makes time in our schedules to visit as much as we are able.
It was these moments, often unspoken and unplanned, that showed just the power of togetherness and why community is such an important part of the Lasallian Volunteers experience. In a program where you are often taken out of your comfort zone in just about everything- moving away from your family, living in an oftentimes entirely different part of the country, and transitioning into the working world- the members of your community become your family, a support system through the good, the bad, and everything in between. Yes, this year has had its ups and downs, but when I look back on the community experiences I have had, there have been far too many positive ones to dwell on the negative.
As I sit here trying to conclude this blog post, I can only look back on these memories, this building of our community together, and see an intricate dance that we have choreographed over the course of the last eight months. I would not trade it for anything.
Heather Marsh is a 1st year LV serving at San Miguel School in Tulsa, Oklahoma and is a 2015 graduate of Saint Mary’s College of California.