A few uncomfortable things…

My dear friend, Joy Stewart, encouraged me to blog alongside her. Since her passing in January, I have found it very difficult to do so. However, I’ve done a few things in Joy’s name since, so here you go Joy, I’m at it again.

I am uncomfortable–and I love it. Yes, I am doing a service year. Yes, to all expected struggles that come with one’s journey through a service year. But finances and all things trickling down from that are not what I’m addressing. I’m talking about that uncomfortable feeling when you’re questioning the strength of your handshake when meeting someone in a work setting that has 4x the experience, knowledge, and expertise as you do. The discomfort in knowing that you’ve tried as many dog training tricks as you can with little to no results, and you wonder how in the hell people your age are raising children. The sense of discomfort when you receive your MCAT/LSAT/GRE/Whatever grad school test score you’ve studied months for that finally comes in your inbox, and it is 10 points lower than all of your practice tests. When you claim you haven’t had time or energy to keep in contact with your closest friends and family members, and they reach out to you one unexpected night–the uncomfortable guilt you have that you didn’t make the move, but the extreme comfort in knowing they genuinely understand. That uncomfortable moment when you do, say, or act in the same exact way of either one of your parents, and caught in between realizing you’re lucky enough to have become like them and scared enough to recognize that you’re now your own adult. Or the discomfort you feel when searching for a job or grad school, reading the minimum requirements, and questioning all decisions you’ve made up to that point in time.

The reason I am all about this uneasy, restless, anxious feeling is because it is fueling my confidence and driving my motivation. Since last May when I was handed my college diploma, I’ve taken on this true feeling of independence. At first I thought, “Damn, I’m good,” when I found my apartment, bought my own dog food, filled my own refrigerator, accepted my own big-girl job, wore my own high heels to work, and made my own friends in a new city without a college connection. I quickly realized that I am not so good (my other blog posts pin point some specifics), and that’s okay. It’s better than okay, it’s a reality check and it’s the best.

Barreling through so many uncertainties–especially at a time that others my age seem to be owning these unsettling moments–makes me want to work harder and learn more. I’ve realized I don’t have the best ideas in the room, my testing abilities aren’t as sharp as I thought, my time management isn’t so under control, and my confidence is not always through the roof. By putting myself out there, by taking on various things that I have come to know I am not experienced in, I have opened a world full of questions that only I can answer. More often than not, a lot of these answers come from the knowledge my parents subtly and not so subtly taught me while growing up–much of which I was unwilling to take in at the time. Some answers come from a lot of little failures I’ve experienced recently and in my past. And the remaining are found in Google searches in the middle of writing a work email, when you’re using a term just because you think it sounds fancy, but is most likely not contextually correct.

I’ve learned more than I have ever thought imaginable in the last 11 months and I am by no means a master at this being 22 thing. Humility in the work force gets you more respect and trust than anything else. However, confidence in what you’re doing, whether you know how to do it or not, is key to producing the best results. No one is confident in a half-ass effort, so that confidence brings me to my best product. Understanding that distance from my close friends and family members doesn’t mean there is a disconnect, is crucial to being able to pick up the phone and ask for help when I just can’t handle it anymore. And realizing that all that I have created is due to my efforts, yes, but mostly due to the time, critiques, and advice so many have given me throughout my life. As my brilliant mother always said, “nothing is handed to you,” and while I work to provide the best life for myself (which should inherently benefit others as well), I will always follow my mother’s other bit of advice,”never let them see you sweat.”

I will continue to happily find comfort through my discomfort.

Simple Stresses Make or Break Solidarity

So it’s been three weeks that I have been fortunate enough to say that my form of transportation is a 2007 Prius. I am also fortunate enough to have parents who are supportive and offered to pay the insurance. While reflecting on these two facts, I’ve come to realize something very shocking: I am a completely different person when my needs are filled. This realization has been incredibly humbling. How so? Let me try to explain…

My last post demonstrated the surface layer of what life impoverished in America looks like, specifically Tucson. Now add on a dependent or two (I can’t possibly say my Teddy dog counts as a dependent, although sometimes he seems more tiring than a child), having the possibility of a loved one incarcerated, working difficult hours, acquiring my own health care (not relying on my parents’), and maintaining a schedule that reflects the time and efforts necessary to keep said dependents happy. Lack of clean, affordable housing, unreliable transportation, unsafe neighborhoods, low wages, and the five additional elements mentioned previously make for a concoction of never-ending stress. Place yourself in that situation–try as hard as you can. For AmeriCorps VISTAs, we are in this environment for a one year commitment; for all others in this situation, they are in it for years at a time (or their whole lives). Now, without discussing the reasons as to how and why people must live in these situations, try to imagine waking up each day with a positive attitude. Is it possible? Sure! Are people who are impoverished capable of being happy? Just as much as Bill Gates or Warren Buffet. However, these stresses (just like stresses existing in all of our lives) really takes a toll on one’s aura and way in which one associates with others.

Since living in Tucson, I have been cussed out three different times. Each time it happened, I was in my low income neighborhood and my reaction was calm and collective, but in my head I was incredibly judgmental and discriminating. For reasons in which I will never understand, three simple conversations escalated to a one sided yelling match aimed at me. At the time, all I could think about these people was, “how dare you; you’re psychotic.” My thoughts would circle around all the possible reasons as to why they were impoverished, and just because they reacted negatively to me, these assumptions put them at blame. I have never thought that way before! How terrible of me! As inappropriate as their actions were, it was equally inappropriate of me to have the thoughts I was having. I was so consumed in my own world. I was so focused on the fact that I was tired from waking up extra early to walk my dog, or I was sweaty and irritable from waiting for a late bus in the hot sun, or  I had to figure out how to budget my bills, or missed my family and friends back home–I, I, I. These three people are not psychotic–they’re stressed. For them, I was the last straw, I was the final stress-or to set things off for them. One of the men from the dog park that cussed me out, who I especially thought was a real (pardon my language) jackass, actually lives in a van in which he shares with his three dogs that he rescued. I know this now because, while I was complaining about his behavior to a fellow dog park visitor, she told me his story and that she sees him sleeping in the back lot behind the park. This man is divorced, has three kids who his ex-wife won’t let him contact,  is unable to work due to a disability, and homeless. How dare I call him a psycho. I couldn’t even imagine the mood I would be in if I was in his situation and some young girl rolls up to the dog park in MY neighborhood, in a nice Prius, with a howling dog, that insists at targeting one of my dogs every time they are at the dog park (Teddy never hurt any of the dogs, he just relentless howls at the ones who resemble a raccoon and  scares them off). Although I don’t know the background story for the other two people who decided the best way to communicate their frustrations was to cuss me out, I can go ahead and assume all of the thoughts I was having were absolutely judgmental and insensitive.

Now that I have a car, and I am able to effectively travel Tucson day and night, I find myself to be much more patient and in general happier. One thing that is so hard to admit–I honestly believed I was being the best version of me when I was without safe transportation and I thought, “man, I really do deserve this car.” Wrong. Sure, I do nice things, I work hard in the name of AmeriCorps VISTA and it’s mission, I give to the homeless and smile at people on the bus, but all of that doesn’t matter when my final stress-or happens and I get all worked up, hating my situation and the inconvenience of it all. My reaction was very similar to those three people, I just happened to be lucky enough to have lived a very easy life up to this point, and was taught by my incredible parents not to make a public scene when things don’t go my way. But boy did I have a rant going in my own head. Sometimes, when I noticed I was being extra snappy, impatient, rude, or flat out unpleasant, I could pull myself out of it by comparing my life to those who truly are in hardship, and let the guilt take over until I was once again the version of Sara most people know. So that’s my confession, I am a brat when I don’t have my needs filled, and I do not act in solidarity when I judge others. Therefore, that’s my mission. Life is going to get a hell of a lot harder for me in the years to come, but it will also be filled with the most incredible opportunities, people, experiences and love. At no point in time should I ignore the lesson I have most recently learned. Life is hard, and for some it is really really hard. I am in full control of my thoughts and reactions, and if I act in solidarity with everyone I meet, I could switch from being someone’s last straw, to someone’s helping hand.

As my good friend Molly always preaches, “Be kind to others, because everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

Has it really been 3 months already?

Tucson. Tucson. Just saying the city’s name makes me subconsciously shake my head in disbelief–disbelief as to how this city manages to function, and how I’ve managed to function for the last 3 months. “Go to Tucson!” they said. “It will be fun!” they said. Okay, well no one actually said that, but before moving here, I heard all sorts of opinions about this rolling stretch of desert metropolitan:

“Tucson people? Watch out, the heat does something weird to them;”

“The desert huh? well at least you can wear your skivvies in public during the mid of winter;”

“Oh that place is excellent for biking!”

Perhaps before taking the job, I should have inquired from more reliable and informed sources about the city’s dynamic. But to hell with it, right? An opportunity to be an AmeriCorps VISTA member (something I’ve wanted since 7th grade), in a city that is completely new to me, relatively cheap to live in, and sunny all year except for those crazy monsoons–of course I’ll take it! That’s the beauty of being single and 22–accepting  a ridiculously low paying job in, yet again, a brand new city I had yet to visit. However, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

So here I am, three months in. I have switched AmeriCorps VISTA positions from Big Brother Big Sister Volunteer Coordinator to the Mayor’s Office Program Developer for anti-poverty initiatives, because there was a lack of communication upon hire about my means of transportation. Oh Tucson transportation–the bane of my existence. The second day I was here, I knew I had to get a bike because I needed a way of getting to work that didn’t cost me $1.50 per ride (which is the typical bus fare). I bought a road bike with a popped tire and missing handle bars for relatively cheap.  After two weeks of owning it and fixing it up at the local nonprofit bike shop, BICAS, my bike was supposedly “impounded” by the police while I was at work in the Pioneer Building downtown. When I called the police, there was no record of this incident, and no trace of my $25 bike lock they took as well. Twenty-five dollars is a good chunk of change when considering VISTAS make $430 every two weeks–not to mention my bike that had cost me $45 total. Anyway, I worked a few hours at BICAS to give me credit to buy a new bike, but even after working a bit, the only bikes I could afford were in their “Purgatory” section. Post second bike purchase, on the way home from BICAS, I quickly figured out why my bike had been wasting away in Purgatory. Over the next month my bike tire popped twice–and almost got me in a few bike on car collisions due to a lack of brakes–but held a little space in my heart because it managed to get me through the flooded streets during quite possibly the longest monsoon season ever in existence (okay that might be an exaggeration, but when you’re constantly splashed by the street muck from the cars driving through the 1/2 foot puddles, monsoon season feels like a year). Anyway, the final mishap with my bike made me ditch the JCPenney beach cruiser original, complete with rusted handle bars and missing brakes, and wait in line for 2.5 hours at the Suntran station to get my low-income bus pass. Let me tell you, after taking the bus home that day and arriving at my apartment with only some forehead perspiration, not needing a dry t-shirt to change into, the bus felt so luxurious. Little did I know that for the next month I would be cussed out by a drunk, touched by a creepy man who always found a way to sit near me, have to wait for a bus that either never came or was 40 minutes late, call the police for a drunk man that seemed to have alcohol poisoning at the bus stop, and then again call the police for a domestic violence incident that unraveled right before me. When I wasn’t taking the bus, I was walking to the grocery store, the gym, or taking my dog out for either his morning run or afternoon dog park visit. Besides the litter and random unfortunate soul who was under the influence of gawd knows what, poor guy, walks weren’t all that bad–just hot and time consuming. Well as of last week, I’ve rid of the bus trips, walks in the dark and in areas that shouldn’t be cruised in by foot, and the bike–I have saved and budgeted enough to buy a used 2007 Prius (and God bless my parents for offering to pay the insurance for now).  Between struggling to pay the bills, sweating nonstop while trying to get from Point A to Point B, living above a white-supremacist that literally has “nazi life” tattooed on his back, running away from various stray dogs, squeezing enough money to cover Teddy’s vet bill when he was bit, dismissing daily harassment while walking or biking, dealing with an HR issue at work with a coworker, and going through the typical struggle all low-income families have to endure in order to get their benefits, I still see these last 3 months as some of the most beautiful months I’ve ever lived.

Oren Yakobovich, a human rights activitst, said in a TED Talk recently, “The most effective way to create social change is to work within the communities themselves.” It could not have been said any better. All humans have dignity. All humans have a right to feel proud. All humans deserve fair opportunities. The daily struggles that made me want to pull my hair out, are also the things that showed me how breathtaking humanity can be. Numerous times I was lost on the bus route and so many other low-income bus pass users (I know this because there is a special ding that rings when a low-income rider presents his bus pass) went out of their way to explain all the stops and shortcuts. One time, an elderly woman went a whole stop beyond where she needed to get off, just to be sure I knew the way back home! A woman sitting next to me at the DES office, who had three little ones running all around, looked at me while I was fanning myself from the mile walk I had to take to get there (because there is no bus route to the DES office–makes sense, right?! ah!), and said, “Don’t worry mija, even with all that sweat you’re still beautiful.” Another time, a man, about my age, who seemed to be homeless, came up to me and offered to help carry my 20 lb. dog food bag on a day that was 98 degrees out. Walking out of that same grocery store a week or two later, a blind man was sitting on the corner with his pup and told me he wasn’t “wanting anything much, just an angel to come by and say hello.” And speaking of pups, the super understanding people at the Jacob’s dog park who just smile when my dog incessantly howls for the whole hour he is there, give me advice on various vet services for cheap, inform me of alternate/safer routes to the dog park (when I had to walk 2.2 miles to get there), and show concern when they see that I am overwhelmed and stressed, have been so very kind to me.

Because of the way the human psyche works, we tend to gravitate towards and remember the negative. I can assure you, I have had far more lovely experiences than negative ones with people of Tucson. And even if I didn’t personally come in contact with people doing kind acts, I witnessed people helping others, getting up on the bus for young mothers, the children of the apartment complex going out of their way to invite the new kid to come out and play, share their study table with a large deaf discussion group in a packed coffee shop, and tip their hats to the air force men of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. So people of Tucson, stay true to your city’s motto, “keep Tucson kind,” and continue to be as colorful as the Ben’s Bells mosaics all around this nutty city.

And to my fellow VISTA members and those involved with helping me work on my anti-poverty initiatives, you too will get a blog about the wonderful effect you’ve had on my life for the past 3 months. :]

TED talks brew a storm of thoughts

As I dive deeper into the structure and make up of Tucson’s public schools, I am more and more amazed of the work so many men and women do to improve a child’s education. Being an AmeriCorps VISTA member, and working to improve a pressing attendance issue for K-3 graders, I have had the opportunity to speak with some of the hardest working people who get little to no gratitude for all they do. These men and women are Dropout Prevention Specialists who travel door to door to bring kids back to school; teachers who work 2 to 3 extra hours a day in order to keep after and before school programs running for kids who have troubled home lives; social workers who place homeless and abused children in environments in which they can grow socially, emotionally, and morally; superintendents who ensure new policies are working by visiting schools regularly; and principals who know every child by name and drive in their own cars to pick up the occasional child whose parent forgot to bring him to the bus stop. This TED talk not only addresses the importance of thanking one’s educators and all involved in the education process, but thanking all people who make positive impacts on one’s life. I know sometimes I can gripe about Tucson and all the troubles it has caused me, but I am thankful to all the people here–whether it be bus drivers, the man at the market who never charges me to use my debit card because I never have cash, the DES agents who help me with my benefits, or the lady with only a handful of teeth that went out of her way to compliment my dress today–for the simple acts of kindness they do for me. Pay it forward. Be kind today.