On Leaving (and Coming Home)

“I am grateful to have been loved and to be loved now and to be able to love, because that liberates. Love liberates. It doesn’t just hold—that’s ego. Love liberates. It doesn’t bind. Love says, ‘I love you. I love you if you’re in China. I love you if you’re across town. I love you if you’re in Harlem. I love you. I would like to be near you. I’d like to have your arms around me. I’d like to hear your voice in my ear. But that’s not possible now, so I love you. Go.’” – Maya Angelou

Since the summer I turned 17, my life has been a series of comings and goings. My first time leaving home for an extended period of time was in July 2009, where I attended a month-long theater conservatory two hours away. Then, when I was 18, I left New Jersey to go to college in upstate New York. In both cases, I was more than ready to leave the suburban bubble I grew up in and see the world, not really thinking about what and who I was leaving behind. When I was 20, I left for France for the first time with the comfortable notion that I would be home at the end of the semester. And two years later, I went back to France with the same comfortable notion, though the time of return was significantly further away.

I’m thankful that I’ve had the opportunity to live in so many places and meet all different kinds of people. However, in my wild dreams of adventure and ambition, I rarely thought about the people I was leaving behind.

In the coming weeks, several good friends, including my own sister, will be leaving the New York metropolitan area to pursue the next step in their education and/or careers. Most likely, I won’t see some of them for many months or years. In past situations, I could handle the separation easily because more often than not, I would be leaving too; graduation never really affected me because I was so focused on where I was going next. This time was different. They were leaving for an extended period of time. I was staying with no immediate prospect of leaving.

It is always easier to leave than to be left behind.

After I left book club Tuesday night, this crushing realization moved me to tears. I was angry with God and with myself. I felt like I was being punished for my insatiable wanderlust and my disregard for the sacrifices made by my family and friends, especially my parents, so I could travel. I wondered if I had thrown away relationships and opportunities at home, and if I had made the right decision in leaving at all.

As I stood on line for the bus, I saw a familiar face a few people behind me. It was the face of a high school friend I hadn’t spoken to in years. Both of us, in our turn, had left our hometown for college, study abroad and different jobs. Now, we had returned. We spent the whole ride catching up, talking about old times and books and current plans, and parted with hopes of seeing each other again. As she got off the bus, I thought of the other friends I had made and remade since coming home, of the opportunies I’ve had in New York, and of my growing relationship with my family. I knew that I was back in New Jersey because there was something for me to do here.

A voice in my heart spoke to me and said, “You see, you of little faith? I am not taking these people away from you. I am calling them to something greater. Do you think it was easy for all the people in your life to let you go? No. They didn’t let you go because they didn’t care; they did it because they love you. My question to you is: do you love your friends enough to let them go?”

I did. I do love my friends and my sister well enough to let them go. Go ahead and laugh and say, “Well that’s the harsh reality of life.” However, I’ve found that merely accepting reality does nothing to relieve the bitter flavor of the situation. Responding to a situation with unconditional love does. Since I have received such unconditional love and support from my family and friends for any adventure I felt called to chase, I can do nothing but the same for anyone else.

Love does not hold. Love liberates. So I love you. Go, and I will stay.

A plus!


– Vicky

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TAPIF: One Year Later

At the beginning of October 2014, I began my year in Compiègne with the Teaching Assistant Program in France. One year ago.

I was supposed to arrive at the end of September, but plane engine issues coupled with airport strikes in Paris (Ah, la joie des grèves françaises!) delayed my arrival in France by 10 hours. However, I arrived. And what a year I had!

When many people describe a profound experience, they say it “changed my life.” This often implies that something (a quality, an idea, a person) was missing before the event took place. My seven months in Compiègne were not life-changing in the sense that I became someone I wasn’t. Rather, I changed because qualities that lay dormant in me were revived and strengthened, and even some faults were diminished. I begin to think that growth is not so much an addition or subtraction as it is a refinement of spirit. If God formed us fearfully and wonderfully, He must have given us everything we need to go through life, and sends people or experiences into our lives accordingly to draw out and refine these different qualities in us.

I’m not going to write a “listicle” for this topic because it’s too simple. Rather, I’ll just share two of the most poignant lessons from my time in France, hopefully in a semi-coherent manner.

I’ll be honest: I’m no expert on children.  I took a babysitting class in middle school, but there were never any kids in my neighborhood to babysit, and my youngest cousins lived far away. I never took a pedagogy class in college. So no, I didn’t really know what I was in for when I accepted a position teaching middle school English. Since I returned home, I’ve gotten a lot of messages from prospective teaching assistants expressing the same fear: “I don’t know what I’m doing. I’ve never taught anyone anything! How am I supposed to teach them for a whole year?” To those assistants who might be reading this post: you don’t need a long resume of teaching experience to do this. You just need to be a resource.

On January 7, 2015, the Paris offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were attacked, and many of France’s prominent political cartoonists were killed. The next day, I walked into my weekly conversation club with a lesson all ready. One of my students raised his hand and said, “Miss, can we talk about Charlie Hebdo?” I could see the fear and pain in the eyes of my 12- and 13-year-old students, so I agreed. We spent the whole hour discussing the event (in English) and I said very little. The class carried the conversation all on its own. My only remark was at the end of the lesson: “There are many people in the United States who are thinking of you and who support you.”

Kids are used to adults not taking them seriously. It used to infuriate me when I was younger, and I’m sure it was the same for you. The best thing you can be for any child is a willing listener.

Outside from teaching, I became bolder. I learned bite the bullet of fear and take chances, especially when it came to meeting new friends.

There is a stereotype that the French are not as friendly and open as Americans are. In my experience, this is only partly true. Most of the French people I met were very friendly and open, especially once they found out I could speak French well. But it was not the same smothering friendliness that you often see from Americans. It was a reserved politeness that slowly, organically developed into friendship.

I found out about the Communauté Chrétienne des Étudiants (Catholic community at the local university), a week or two after I arrived. It took me another month to work up the courage to attend a meeting. What sort of community was this? What if they never had an international student before? What if my French wasn’t good enough? And was I even allowed to join because I wasn’t a student?

God makes swift work of our doubts when we trust Him and take a leap of faith. I attended my first CCE Mass and dinner in November, and my only regret was not going sooner! In this community, I found warm, welcoming people from all over France and the world who cared about me and made me feel at home. Some of my best memories of the year come from this community. It was so wonderful to make real French friends!

And of course, I can’t forget the other language assistants I met from all over the world, an eclectic little family of expats that supported one another exploring a new country. And abundant kindness flowed in from my roommates, my coworkers, my students and their families, and even the everyday compiègnois. Most greeted me with a kind bonjour and smile, and many went beyond the call of politeness, inviting me to dinners and parties, or taking me on excursions to tourist sites in the area. It was truly heartbreaking to leave a place that had become like home in less than a year.

Toward the end of my stay, I thanked as many people as I could in person for their welcome and hospitality. One friend responded,  “It was nothing. You were so dynamic and happy that you fit right in.”

Goodness attracts goodness. You don’t have to be an outgoing or extroverted person to find friends in a strange land. You just need to be present, be open, be kind. There will be times of loneliness and homesickness, and that’s OK. But if you have courage enough to reach outside of yourself, you will make a home wherever you go.

Merci à tous qui m’a très bien accueillir pendant mon séjour à Compiègne. And bon courage to all the new language assistants in France this year.

À bientôt!

– Vicky

En Avant Pour L’Avent, Week 1: My BFF Jesus

As you begin to read this post, you probably have two burning questions:

Q. WHERE THE HECK HAVE YOU BEEN, VICKY? IT’S BEEN OVER A MONTH!

A. I firmly believe that November is the most jam-packed month of the year. Yes, even busier than December. It’s like the world needs to cram all the non-holiday-related obligations into November to make room for all the bustle of the Christmas season. So yeah, between teaching, lesson planning, and a little traveling, I’ve been busy. I’m sorry. 😦 But I’m hoping that this Advent will give me more time to write, which brings me to …

Q. Why is the title of this post in French, and what does it mean?

A. This past Sunday was the first Sunday of Advent, and as usual, I went to the messe des jeunes — youth evening mass — in town. A seminarian there was wearing a bright green rubber bracelet that said “En Avant Pour L’Avent,” which roughly translates to “All ready for Advent!” It’s catchier in French, in my humble opinion.

I thought it would be a great title for my Advent series on this blog. The season of Advent is a time of preparation for the coming of the infant Jesus at Christmas … so what does that mean? Around this time, people start, or have already made, their Christmas game plans: when the parties are, what decorations need to be put up, and “Gosh, I need to remember to get a gift for my boss’ secretary’s assistant’s kid.” It’s easy to go into Advent without a spiritual game plan and try to squeeze in time for Mass between shopping sprees.

This year, I really wanted to use Advent to grow closer to Jesus, to more deeply understand His love for me, and ultimately, to make Him my best friend.

In many chastity talks for women I’ve seen, the speaker talks about making Jesus the love of your life, the man who satisfies you before anyone else. This is something I’ve been trying to do for a long time now, and I’d get frustrated when I would examine my conscience and think, “Nope, I still want a husband more than I want Jesus.” I didn’t know how to fix this, and I knew I couldn’t force myself to love Jesus in that way, even though He already had that love times infinity for me.

I got a hint two weeks ago at the messe de jeunes. I absolutely LOVE this Mass! The musicians and the lectors are all high school and college students, the priests are generally younger and more energetic, and it reminds me so much of Mass at my American college. I felt right at home after my first youth Mass, and I started going to Wednesday evenings at the aumônerie, or religious education center, where I met a ton of welcoming and fun French Catholic students. Whenever I went to Sunday Mass or to a Wednesday meeting, I was sure of seeing a lot of people I knew who would come up to me and say “Salut!” and kiss me on both cheeks (faire la bise).

Two weeks ago, I walked into the church, and knew nobody. I don’t know what was going on that week, but all my new acquaintances at the aumônerie, and even a Catholic teacher I was becoming good friends with, weren’t there.

Those of you who know me personally know that I like people. I can have my introverted moments, but for the most part, I find God most often in other people. At this moment, I had no people, so there was no faith, no community, no joy. I turned bitter. I was uncivil to the people who did look my way and say “Bonsoir.” I was sorely disappointed; I had needed a Catholic community and there was none to be seen.

At some point, a voice spoke in my heart, “There is still Jesus.” There, right in front of me, on the altar, was my Savior, who had given up His life — His guiltless, blameless life — for me, a sinner. John 15:13 says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” We often see Jesus as a Lord, or a Master, not a friend. But He desires to be our friend! No one knew this better than Saint Teresa of Avila, who wrote, “For prayer is nothing else than being on terms of friendship with God.”

This Advent season, I am working to build that friendship with Jesus. In seeking to make Jesus the love of my life, I had forgotten that the greatest and longest-lasting love stories begin when a beautiful friendship blossoms into something more. Jesus did not give His life on the Cross without spending time with His disciples and the people He ministered to, teaching them, breaking bread with them, and healing them. A relationship with God doesn’t just happen; we need to cultivate it.

So here is my Advent Game Plan. I hope it will inspire you to write your own:

1. Read the Bible chapter mentioned in the daily verse on my Advent calendar.

2. Do the daily reflection in my “Five Minutes with the Word” booklet. (Thanks, Catholic community care package!)

3. Confession at least once and Mass as often as possible.

4. Journaling, with the intention of filling up my five-year-old journal before Christmas.

5. Bringing my problems to prayer before sharing them with anyone else.

Stay tuned for more Advent updates! This weekend, I will be going on a retreat at a very special location. It’s going to be awesome. Know that I am praying for you this Advent season.

Bisous!

– Vicky

What’s your Advent Game Plan? Tell me in the comments!

The Great Wall of Snark

It’s always a good week when you see an article on your Facebook news feed that sums up everything you’ve been thinking about that week, especially when you have a blog.

This week’s winning article is from Charlotte Lieberman, a recent graduate of Harvard, whose Carrie Bradshaw-esque article “Why is College Dating So Screwed Up?” has made its way from the Cosmopolitan website to every college girl’s Facebook wall.

Normally, I really hate Cosmo. My best friend and I spent a good part of our New Year’s Eve sleepover flipping through an issue, half laughing, half feeling like puking. But Lieberman’s article was an insightful surprise. En somme, she argues that the relationship problems that college students face are not caused by the so-called “hookup culture,” but rather by technology, sexual experimenting and what Lisa Wade, professor of sociology at Occidental College, calls the “whoever-cares-less-wins” dynamic.

I’m not qualified to talk about the first two causes, so I’ll focus on the last one: assuaging the fear of investing too much emotion and getting hurt by putting up walls of nonchalance.

My honors senior seminar class this semester has practically turned into biweekly group therapy. There are six students in the class, all female, and so our conversations can get pretty personal without fear. This week, our professor asked us to go around the circle and name one behavioral pattern we have noticed ourselves falling into. Mine falls directly under the “whoever-cares-less-wins” umbrella.

When I first try to make friends with a girl, I am very friendly, smiling, open and warm. Later on, as we start to become better friends, my alter ego that I like to call Snarky Vicky comes out. I’m sassy, but it’s all in good humor. When I try to make friends with a guy, it’s a completely different story. Snarky Vicky comes in full force, crushing every male ego in her path. Okay, not really. But I am not warm or open or caring or sensitive. Never. It’s only after I’ve known the guy for several months that I start to soften up, and for some guys, I never do.

And here’s the issue: I’m sick and tired of it.

I hate that I feel I have to put up this Great Wall of Snark to interact with guys, like Heaven forbid they take my attempts to be friendly as flirting! Lieberman recalls an experience where she met a guy at a party who said he’d text her to hang out the next night. He never did, and he avoided her the next day in class. When they met up again a month later, he said that he thought she was cool, but didn’t want to date her. In Lieberman’s words, who had ever said anything about dating?! I feel her frustration: when did the line between friendliness and flirtation become so blurred? If contemporary feminism promotes equality between the sexes, why do we still see guys as “males” before we see them as “human beings?”

I know several intelligent, funny and interesting guys whom I would love to call friends, not boyfriends. But instead of pursuing a friendship, we’re stuck in a “snarkship,” where our conversations contain more witty rejoinders than substance. I’m not saying that clever bantering isn’t a healthy part of a relationship, but there needs to be a balance between jokes and sincerity. You need to know that the other person will be there for you if you have a problem. I don’t feel like I could have a serious, intelligent, meaningful conversation with any of the guys I’m in a “snarkship” with, and that saddens me. There are few things I love more than a really good conversation.

So this is an open letter to any guy I’m currently in a “snarkship” with (you know who you are): I think you’re awesome. I admire you. I would like to get to know you better. I don’t want a relationship, just a friendship. I want you to feel like you can trust me, and that I can trust you. If I’m nice to you, if I ask you how your day is going, if I ask you a thought-provoking question, it doesn’t necessarily mean I’m flirting with you. I just want to talk. And if you do too, let’s be friends.

A bientôt!

– Vicky

Are you currently in a “snarkship”? Do you have any other thoughts on Lieberman’s article? Share them in the comments!