Thursday, January 22, 2015

A Train Wreck of Opportunity

Sometimes I doubt if I am carpe diem-ing (i.e., seizing the day) to the extent that I should be. There's a part of me that immensely enjoys the comfort of routine and familiarity; heading to my favorite bar every Monday evening for live jazz, grocery shopping for sales on Tuesday with acquainted cashiers, half days of work on Friday so I can be up early to build on Saturday, and so on. The adventures are not as significant, but punctuated in between to keep things interesting. My nearly six completed months of (pseudo) independent living in the Berkshires has opened unexpected connections and experiences, and it seems like I've been here longer.

Another part of me is constantly restless and skeptical of feeling too settled in. What am I missing? What else is out there? What more could I be doing? These revolving wonders have always been part of my mind. It's a love and hate relationship, because for all my dreams, I often wish I could just be satisfied with what is. Even more, change wrecks me when it occurs because I so easily fall in love with places and people, yet I thrive on the endless possibilities of what could be next.

I'm truly thankful that my first professional work experience relates to my ethical commitments: social advocacy, community development, and creating human connections. It's fulfilling to be part of a larger mission to serve others. Yet as I reach the half-way point of my AmeriCorps VISTA term, these tough decisions are being laid on the table; I'll have to decide if I'm going to renew my contract after August. Perhaps I won't leave the Berkshires, but I can't deny my lofty aspirations of being in New York City, D.C., out on the West Coast, or maybe abroad again! Nonetheless, that kind of relocation would be contingent on a salaried job. Even after this year, will I have enough experience under my belt to qualify against others?

There's another deck to lay on the table: graduate school. Going into my senior year of undergrad, I was too starry-eyed from China and slightly burned from classes to directly continue my education. However, I knew it wouldn't be long before I was eager to research again and return to the realm of academia. I become enthralled when I collect facts, clips, data and suddenly see a narrative to share with others. This is something I will want to return to in the next few years.

I understand that I can't dive into grad school recklessly; a masters or doctorate program should be intentional and a catalyst into another professional level. As for the fields of study, at the moment I'm feeling passionate about a masters in journalism (investigative or international), public policy (focus on food policy), or a PhD in cultural studies (the curve ball, I know!). With these types of degrees, I envision myself with capabilities and qualifications to influence the world around me, but I can't influence everything, so I need to focus on one area. There's conflict here between conventional vs. abstract modes of influence, meaning I can't decide if I believe in working more with people and words on the individual micro-level, or if I can crusade into abstract policy and cause change on the institutional macro-level. Another question I need hashed out is if it's in my advantage to pick that special interest area and become an expert first, and then venture into journalism/policy/research, or do I pursue the general degree and specify from there? Unsurprisingly, my indecisiveness and unwillingness to be another $100,000 in debt will hold me up for a bit. Oh, and I need to take my GRE (the SAT-equivalent for graduate school) ... which I'm hoping to tackle before the summer!

So here I just attempted to unpack my convoluted thinking, the pending train wreck of potential opportunities that I have to navigate. This is why I have a hard time talking about these decisions, but at least you have it in writing. To continue with the train metaphor, the matter for me now is to see if I can align the tracks. There must be a way that merges pragmatic considerations (financial obligations, professional development, human relation logistics) and self-fulfillment (moral considerations, intellectual stimulation, emotional stability). Honestly, this is entirely dizzying to consider! I'm going to drop it now.

Now, to the fun stuff I normally blog about!!!

Like I said, working with Habitat has been a blast. We definitely have our daily disasters, but it always amazes me how much we accomplish. I just posted a blog on our website about a holiday party from the beginning of the month. We invited all of our different volunteers to a lavish house that was donated to the organization, and celebrated our work with delicious food and booze.  I whipped up a batch of coconut macaroons that could make any day feel like a celebration, so check it out! And here are some snazzy photos from the party (mainly of my friends and I, the rest of the photos are on the Central Berkshire Habitat Facebook page):

Team Habitat in the Berkshires!

As the Volunteer Engagement Coordinator, building with volunteers keeps me out of the office and busy. It's also freezing this time of year and we are very close to wrapping up our outdoor projects. I really appreciate the commitment of our builders to join me in the cold every weekend! I had a wonderful time this past Monday on the Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service when we partnered with the City of Pittsfield and Berkshire Community College. We had our first volunteers tear up the interior of a house that we're rehabilitating for a new Habitat family. I finally bought a pair of women's construction gloves that fit, so tomorrow will be the first test run for those!

This is the same ramp from the previous post. It's covered in snow but still needs a hand rail and skirting around the bottom. If only the weather would cooperate!
For the rehab, we tore out filthy carpets, broken counter tops and appliances, and cracked away at rotting tile floor like this. We're going back to the house tomorrow to move all the debris to the dump (should be interesting).

My holiday in Florida -- across Christmas and New Year's with my parents and my brother Chris's family -- seems ages ago already. I find Florida quite bizarre and I can't stand humidity, but there is something to be said for a beach, sunshine, and sandals all year! Nevertheless, I willingly venture outdoors to meander, hike, and ski. As long as I dress warmly.

[Note: Western Massachusetts. Not Florida.]

As much as I drive myself insane with these scintillating thoughts, I acknowledge my privilege of simply being able to make these types of decisions, in a world that is so riddled with injustice and inequality. And I'm endlessly thankful for having people that support me whichever way I go.

Listening: New England Public Radio (NEPR) jazz programming. Having a radio with quality speakers (thanks Tom!) is the best.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Winter's Welcome

There are simply too many wonderful things going on here (between 3-hour dinners and napping on the couch to music)! I apologize for the blog hiatus; the gorgeous Berkshire autumn surrendered itself weeks ago to the cold, and now we're under several inches of snow in the thrusts of winter. Admittedly, I've ditched my Olympus camera (don't worry, Dad, it's in my room) for the sheer convenience of my iPhone. I have plenty of photos to share--bear with me here.

I visit Albany more often now that I'm a Massachusetts resident! There are dozens of awesome acts that pass through, and a few friends from St. Lawrence to catch. Here we saw Start Making Sense, a Talking Heads tribute band, at a sweet venue and restaurant called The Hollow. I still need to eat there!

For Columbus Day weekend, Elsa invited me to Cape Cod where her extended family owns a home. I really enjoyed visiting in the off-season without the crowds. We wandered the beaches and explored parks with her parents, and attended a concert with a virtuoso guitarist named Chris Eldridge (of the Punch Brothers). It's a 3 hour drive from the Berkshires, making it a nice mini-vacation.

Back in Pittsfield, Elsa's two sisters visited for a weekend and we went to the Colonial Theater for another show. It's this marvelous, restored theater right in the downtown, with two balconies and ornate design. This performance was banjoist Noam Pickelny (also of the Punch Brothers--who I will finally see as a full band this March) and fiddler Stuart Duncan. The show was so intimate, they had us sit on stage, rather than in the auditorium seats!
The view from the top of Monument Mountain during the peak of fall ... and a visit from Elizabeth!! She was my first friend to come out and spend the weekend with me, and hopefully not the last. Being with her reminded me of how much I miss my St. Lawrence friends.

 Elizabeth, me, and Elsa at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge. We brought a picnic and ate on those steps.
While many of my classmates returned to Canton for Homecoming at the end of October, I headed North for my 3rd year of an ultimate frisbee tournament in Montreal! It's hosted by the McGill University team and it's always a blast. We combined Ruckus Bus alum and Haos friends and didn't win the tournament, but certainly won the party.
 Halloween was an outrageous display of pirates, wenches, Don Quixote, and a lot of dancing at bars we don't really frequent (it was a blast).


 The beginning of November ushered in my 22nd year of life! How lucky am I to have coworkers and friends who share such love and appreciation. I received bouquets of flowers, a double-layer purple confetti cake, house decorations, a headlamp, bok choy kimchi, my favorite wine, and a dreamy cashmere sweater that makes me feel grown up. I also had quite a bit of whiskey, which wasn't unwarranted.

 That weekend I was able to catch Rubblebucket for the second time this fall! What can I say, my ears have devoured their new album Survival Sounds since I purchased it. I loved that I could sing and dance along even harder than in September!
 Often, my work with Central Berkshire Habitat extends to six days. I frequently join the volunteers at the job site on Saturday to meet these people who are generously donating their time, and get my hands dirty on these projects. We're currently constructing handicap ramps from a City of Pittsfield grant and preparing for an interior rehabilitation project that should last all winter. Check our website here for updates! 

If there's one aspect that's already left a deep impression on me from serving as a Vista and living in Berkshire County, it's that the mission of Habitat is an ever-evolving matrix. We are tackling the larger glut of affordable homes by building and helping out those who just make it achieve their dream. I'm always astonished of how many facets of this mission are deployed by our small non-profit. We serve the community by mobilizing construction volunteers, teaching financial literacy, filing income taxes for free, organizing neighborhood coalitions, using an asset-based approach to support the needs of our neighbors, and more. I've only been here four months and I feel how tireless and dauntless the task can be--but together, we're making it work! Idealism can be merged with action. That being said, please consider donating to our organization this holiday season if you're feeling generous to support Central Berkshire Habitat's many operations! (And give me a heads up if you'd like to know how.)

 The rest of November left my stomach and heart overwhelmingly full. This is from my first of four Thanksgivings, this one with friends from around the Berkshires (hence, 'Friendsgiving')! The turkey and entire potluck was impressive, including leftovers for brunch the next day and ladies vs. guys football to work it all off!

 Thanks/Friendsgiving #2 was just across the border in New Hampshire with my ultimate frisbee teamates from Haos. Once again, an exasperatedly delicious spread of food and stomach pain (from laughing, but also food). Of course, we bundled up and played some ultimate together, as well as Polish horse shoes frolf (disc golf). My disc landed in the lake at one point, which was certainly a shock to wade in for it, but hey, the shit I'll do for frisbee.

 Then, was my marvelous return to the Finger Lakes and Rochester. My parents drove all the way up from Florida and we reunited with family and dear friends. I can't emphasize how exciting and satisfying it was to drive familiar roads, shop at my favorite boutiques, hug the ones I love, and finally eat at the German restaurant in Canandaigua (above) and catch a reservation at my favorite, Ember Woodfire Grill (in between the turkey).
 My best friend Kristen and her family generously welcomed me into their home to enjoy my fourth (and final) Thanksgiving! The next day we went shopping at Salvation Army and beer tasting, then partied with all my favorite people from Honeoye. I couldn't think of a better way to spend black Friday. Home doesn't need to be where you live. I miss them tremendously!


And now it's December and the wreath is on the door (thanks, Mom!), a mini fake Christmas tree sparkles in the corner, colored lights hang around the window, and I have a lot of cards to create. Thanks for staying with me on this one. Everything continues to move quicker than I can grasp, but I am undoubtedly happy.

Listening: Explosions in the Sky

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Massachusetts Overture

I'm having a hard time catching up on my blog because there's too many great things happening. So much has happened between VISTA pre-service orientation in Cambridge (north of Boston) and now, just having finished my first full month at Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity! Needless to say, I'm finally settled in and love exploring the Berkshires. I'm still trying to adjust to the proximity and convenience of everything; ten minutes in any direction and I can grocery shop, go to the mall, chill out to jazz at a tapas bar, dig into wings at a cozy tavern, swim and kayak in two lakes, attend a stage production, pour through museum works, walk through state forests and parks, or hike some of the state's highest peaks. For a small city on the rise from a post-industrial recession, Pittsfield is treating me well.

AmeriCorps VISTA training was at the Hyatt in Cambridge. This was my view of the Charles across to Fenway and downtown Boston. Between long sessions on capacity-building and eliminating poverty in the U.S., we were spoiled with classy rooms and scrumptious meals.
Although training was only three days, I met an inspiring batch of VISTAs who are serving throughout the northeast. Our focus areas include neighborhood revitalization like my own, housing, military and veteran families, education, and sustainable lifestyles. My ultimate takeaway was that even though poverty poses a tremendous challenge, every gesture can make a difference. How we help one another at the human level is just as important as more abstract action at the policy level.
Onota Lake, five minutes from my Pittsfield apartment.
My first assignment with Habitat? Selling charity raffle tickets at the local baseball park on a glorious summer evening that had one of the best turn-outs of the season (and fireworks).
Office views.
I love this paperweight that a family friend gifted.
My housemate, Elsa, is also an AmeriCorps VISTA at Central Berkshire Habitat. Her focus is on family services, whereas mine is on volunteer engagement. I've had a blast living with her so far. We make it a point to simply do things after work, like stroll around the woods, visit our friends, cook 'fancy' dinners, and revel in our selective frugality. It's not too bad!  
Another fantastic point of Pittsfield is that my former St. Lawrence Habi housemate, Luke, also lives here and works with me! I may have explained this already, but he's the primary reason I ever considered my VISTA position. It's pretty awesome to work with him.He and his girlfriend Emma (who I was also friends with at college) live on another small lake called Pontoosuc. This is the dreamy view from their dock across the lake and off to Mount Greylock in the north. It's the highest point in Massachusetts, but I still haven't hiked it.
As seen on one of my bi-weekly drives south to Great Barrington for ultimate frisbee pick-up games.
Hard to resist an afternoon roll with views like this (far side of Pontoosuc).
A pine-filled park along Pontoosuc where I brought my parents two weekends ago. It was muggy that week, but the weather is finally sinking into sweater season.
Labor Day weekend was celebrated with more lazy lake time and a hike up Monument Mountain, just south of Stockbridge. A quickie but with interesting trails, good company, and wonderful views.
A historical home at an arboretum in Pittsfield.
Pitt Park, which wraps around our office. Things are significantly quieter now that summer camp is over and kid's are in school.
Elsa and her dad strolling through a nice fountain park that is unfortunately placed in a very busy portion of downtown.
I hope these images grant some sort of vision of my time here so far. If you can't get enough of my rambling, I invite you to also check out my blog post that was posted on the Central Berkshire Habitat page. Onward to more adventures!

Listening: "The Last Day" by Moby