Unpacking the Weight of a Year of Life
One. You remember the morning sun, the way it peaked over the September horizon. When you roll out of bed that first day, it was there to greet you.
Changes start to chime in, one at a time.
A new job has predictable idiosyncrasies: finding your way around the office, trying to remember thirty or forty or fifty new names all at once, learning the computer system and the organization’s culture. But it’s also a new city’s unpredictable turns as well. Side streets, new friends, new life.
You are starting over, from scratch.
Two. On the fast paced days, you go out to sites where new homes are going up or old homes are getting a fresh coat of paint. A whole neighborhood can look different with walls up where grass once grew still, undisturbed, empty along the street way.
It’s getting cold and you shiver when you hop out, run up to groups of waiting volunteers with your cheeks red and your hair damp from the morning rain. You check them in one by one from an iPad list, trying to remember the words of a short speech you make:
Around 25 homes a year, give or take. Plus 150 home repair projects.
If you let that sink in a moment…the implications if you worked at it long enough. Everyone could have a place to live. A place to call home.
Three. One coworker gone, the other out because of a new baby. Your cubicle is pretty hollow.
You get pulled over for speeding on the highway, ten over, and you start to panic that you won’t have the money to pay the 115 dollar ticket. That money was going to go for rent, for your trip to Indianapolis for Thanksgiving.
You don’t need that holiday dress, then. You don’t need to go out with friends. You scrape the funds into your meager bank account and keep paying on your student loan. Is this how so many live? It feels like dancing with the devil.
Four. Christmas is just around the corner, celebration in the air. Where is all that snow that Iowa keeps talking so much about?
There’s not much going on, yet everything seems to be happening. Little things lie beneath the surface, behind the bustle of the season. Unsure of where you are, who you are, what to do next.
It’s hard to build homes in the bitter cold. The bitter, bone-chilling kind that leaves skeletons of wall frames in wait. Twenty five families are having Christmas under their own roof this year — something they have never experienced before.
Five…can go by quickly. Please, go by quickly. It’s -19 degrees on the way to church and the twenty second walk to the inside of the building makes you feel as thin as a piece of paper.
It’s slow for nonprofits when the volunteers are disinclined to be outside in the chill. Instead, everyone plans. It’s the start of a new year so the gym is full of bodies thinking things will be different this time around.
For you, everything is different whether it’s a new year or not.
Six. You start telling people you’ve made it halfway through your term. You committed to a year, and the months are flying.
Your boyfriend buys you flowers that are delivered to the office and you think for a second you might be an adult with a real life. Are you attached to your body? Is this a dream?
Seven. You make mistakes. You get addresses wrong. Volunteers end up at the wrong site and you have to go find them, corral them, and divert them to the right destination.
Soup bubbles and steeps in the crock pot and the whole apartment smells like rosemary and spice when you get home. Your bones are tired. You ache for the sun, which seems to have forgotten the people of Des Moines in it’s stretching over the globe.
Your car’s fuel pump gives out as you are coming off of the highway. All the saved funds drain away in one bill and you want to scream.
Eight. On Saturdays, the cubicles in the back office are mostly quiet. In-between tasks, you and the few others who are hanging around tell stories and talk about movies. Sometimes, time steals away from you and you talk as if you had known them for years and years and years.
You think you might really like this place. In fact, you know you do. Coworkers are like river-bed rocks. Washed by time, everyone different, and always teaching you something new.
How to properly swing a hammer. How to tell the crown on a piece of lumber. Which books to read. Which plants do well in the spring or the summer. How to tell if you are a goofy-foot.
A list starts to compile.
Nine. Des Moines has one of the best farmer’s markets in the country. Stall upon stall of fresh produce, honey, vegetables, baked goods, and dairy. You crack an egg over a pan and coo over the deep gold yolk.
The biggest project of the year kicks off — ten houses are being built on one street all at the same time. It rains and rains and volunteers are coated in mud up to the knees.
You throw away a pair of sneakers and take hot showers and long naps after work is done. Days are long and the flowers open up in the mornings and little by little, a whole new neighborhood takes shape.
Ten. Ten homes are being painted. By late summer, ten families will have beautiful homes to move into.
When you go out to sites, you tell people your term is half over…until you realize the conclusion is approaching faster than you thought.
For three long weeks, you gorge yourself on fresh Iowa blueberries and watermelon. The sun is out, the grass is green, and the hills roll. And as weird as it sounds, you start to feel like yourself again, as if somewhere along the way you might have only been half there.
Eleven. The air conditioning doesn’t work, so driving home from work leaves you sweating through your shirt. You roll your windows down on the highway.
Late at night, you walk with your sister and her husband and talk about life, about being married, about their dreams for the future. You do the dishes in the morning, cook dinner at night, and sometimes write in between.
People ask you what is supposed to come next. Your heart is somewhere else, despite how much you wish you could burrow yourself here. It’s ease, it’s comfort, it’s a place you think is…home.
The only thing to do with that feeling is to carry it with you to give to others.
Twelve. What is there to say, really? You have to say goodbye. Your coworkers tell you to stay and re-assure that you are ready for the scary next chapter all in the same sentence.
You want to get all sentimental, all teary-eyed, about all the lessons you learned. About confidence, about struggle, about scraping by and thriving and laughing until your belly aches.
But all there is to say is a word:
Stego. In the Greek, it means, “I will be a roof for you”. And for one year’s time, that was what working for Habitat for Humanity was…a roof.
Out of college, I had a lot to work through. A lot of built up burdens, fears, and unsteady ground. A lot of rain. They might not have known it, but these people brought me under their shelter and helped me grow.
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