31 May, 2016

The Buddhist Institute

Hello again. I'm very behind on this blog. I started writing this post a couple weeks ago in Siena, but neglected it until now. I'm currently back in Rome, wrapping up my class this week.

A lot of you have asked me about my time in the institute. How did I end up there? Was it weird? What was it like? What did you do? The whole thing is a little crazy. I can't believe I got to have this experience. Here's the story.

Back in Tennessee, I am a work study student in our performing arts centre on Pellissippi's campus. My director/boss and I were talking one day about my trip to Italy and how I was spending a little extra time there prior to my class. He mentioned he had an aunt in Pisa, and told me he'd contact her and see if I could stay with her for a few days. I graciously accepted his offer. I was soon connected with his aunt, and found out she did not live in Pisa, but was a teacher at a Buddhist institute in Santa Luce. She told me they'd be happy to host me, if I would like to volunteer there. I had nothing to lose in this offer. I was (and am) so grateful for their accommodations.

I booked my flight to Rome and traveled to the institute the next morning. It was a gorgeous stone building in the middle of the Italian countryside. There were beautiful gardens, walking paths, and cats everywhere. I was greeted with such kindness and hospitality by the entirety of the institute. I was given a bed in a dormitory, and told to relax until dinner. I'll admit, I was nervous. I had no idea where I was, no clue how to behave, what to wear...I didn't know if anyone knew English, who were students, who were volunteers...you get my point. I sheepishly walked to dinner that night, not knowing anyone or how the process of getting food worked. I was greeted by the head of the institute with a huge smile and hug, but she spoke only Italian. We found another volunteer to translate for us, and I got the run down on how things worked.

As a volunteer, I was required to work a certain number of hours a day. The jobs were divided up among the volunteers, some of them having different jobs every day. I was placed on the cleaning crew.

A day at the institute looked a little like this: breakfast at 8:00, meditation at 9:00, work from 9:30-12:30, break for lunch, then back to work until around 3:00. It was a lot of physical labour—sweeping, moping, cleaning showers and toilets. We cleaned the entire institute. Daily. It was pretty exhausting, I won't lie. I took a lot of naps. But again, it was a learning experience, and entirely worth it.

I had to learn to communicate pretty much on the fly. Many of the volunteers spoke solely Italian. A few of them knew a bit of English. On the first day, I worked with a girl named Ingrid. She knew a bit of English, and asked about my life, my travels, etc.. Sometimes she'd have a word she didn't know, so we'd work together to find a way to translate our ideas. This was anywhere from acting it out, to pointing, to descriptive words or sounds. It took time and patience, but we figured it out.

The following days were pretty much the same. Get up, eat, work, eat, work, sleep, eat, sleep. It was nice. It was hard at times. The quiet gave me a lot of time to think. I had a lot of time to reflect on what I was learning.

I sat outside the cafe on my last day and made a list:

Things I learned while volunteering at a Buddhist institute

* Kindness triumphs over all
* Drink a lot of tea
* Wear comfy clothes
* Schedule time in your day to sit and have a silent moment, sans phone
* Meditation is a great tool to combat daily demons
* Skip the makeup for a few days. Let your hair fly free. Be at peace
* Everyone has a need to communicate. Sometimes all it takes is a little patience and a willing attitude. Trust me. You can do it
* Appreciate nature. Sit back. Breathe. Listen to the wind and the birds. Take out those headphones
* Ask for help when you need it
* Work hard. Be honest in your work. Shortcuts don't always make for best results
* Be kind to everyone and everything—including yourself
* Make friends with the chef. They'll make you laugh. They'll take care of you
* Respect other cultures and religions. Even if you don't believe in the same things, you can respect another's beliefs
* Clean up after yourself. Remember you are responsible for your own actions
* Experience everything to the fullest. Take every opportunity to explore
* If you are uncomfortable, stop what you're doing. Respect your own boundaries
* Never stop learning. Do not put up walls in your mind
* Choose to be good in this world. Smile. Love. Be friendly. You have nothing to lose in being kind


12 May, 2016

Not All Who Wander...I'm Lost

It's about time to start this writing process again.

Hello. I'm in Italy. And in a strange turn of events, I have no idea what is going on.

Seriously. I'm so lost.

Let's back up. For my past three years in college, I've been generally on top of things. My grades were good, I maintained two jobs while attending school full time, I did shows, etc. etc.. My last semester spent at Pellissippi changed everything.

First of all, I was in a car wreck over the Christmas holiday. Definitely the worst car wreck in which I have been involved, and hopefully the last. It really screwed me up. Long story short, I pushed myself and pushed myself to continually have my shit together and be "okay." I'm the oldest sister, if I was okay, my sisters could see it was good to heal, and they would soon be okay. I didn't slow down. I didn't take time to heal. I didn't want to think anything was wrong. Turns out, I had swelling in my brain, and because of how hard I was pushing myself, it only got worse, making my healing time longer. I wasn't sleeping. I had PTSD nightmares. I could barely eat. It was a nightmare. On top of all of that, I had a slew of health problems thrown my way. Anaemia. Possible thyroid disease. Finally being medicated for depression. And the really fun part: endometriosis. (Side note: we're not 100% certain on the endometriosis yet, as it is difficult to diagnose and the specialists who can test are about 3 hours from my house. Plus, with my leaving the country, we couldn't get an appointment until I'm back. But my doctor is nearly certain. Yay.) Every two weeks was blood work and tests and doctors visits. I went from a healthy, rarely sick person to an incredibly unhealthy individual.

Because of these health problems, I started having problems in school. I couldn't focus. Being in the classroom was increasingly difficult. I had one particular teacher with no care towards my condition who would offer no help when I asked, so I wound up dropping her class. I couldn't participate in theatre. I was too exhausted, too sick. For the first semester in nearly eight years, I wasn't involved in a single show. I wasn't taking any theatre classes. I wasn't assistant teaching. I still worked in the office, but that's not the same. I truly think taking time off from working in theatre was one of the most difficult things I've had to do to take care of myself. I thrive on the hard work and challenges the theatre throws at me. It's a great emotional outlet. Sure, I still wrote in my journal to get my "art" fulfilment, but nothing compares to theatre.

Though it was immensely difficult to take time away from something I love so much, I believe it to be for the best. I had a bit more free time than usual. Okay, I had a LOT more free time without theatre. I stayed busier than ever, though. I worked more. I studied more. I slept more.  I met a new group of people, instead of hiding away in a group of theatre kids. (Though there's nothing wrong with them. I love you, losers.) I went out on dates with a few different guys. Most of the dates didn't turn into anything, save for one, with whom I have an incredibly weird and fun friendship. A little light in the darkness!

The time off also gave me time to think. This is where I started to get lost. Prior to this last semester, I knew exactly what I wanted and where I was going. I knew my field of study. I knew my university. I was on the path to success! Then I woke up one morning and decided...nope. I don't want that. Well, maybe I do. But I'm not sure anymore. So I decided not to go.

Strange things happened after that. I was offered a job in Hong Kong. I was avidly looking at schools in Germany. I had a friend offer to be my roommate in Texas. I was all over the place. I was frantically scrambling to try and put the shattered pieces of my future together. I have never not known what I was going to do on this drastic of a level. I was always Julianna: The Girl Who Has Her Shit Together.

I am no longer that girl. Sure, parts of me are very well developed and put together, but I no longer have a clear set plan for my future. All I know is what I don't want. What I don't know is what I do want. At least that's a start.

I've always said I'm happiest and feel most alive when I am outside of my comfort zone. I consider myself very lucky to feel this way. I like a challenge. When I take a step back and really examine this situation, I realise I'm exactly where I'm uncomfortable: in not knowing. It forces me to learn new things—literally new survival skills. Part of me has always loved the mystery of the future. I know I can't control it, but I still try. But for now, I must be okay with not knowing.

With that, I have decided to take time off of school. Maybe a semester, maybe a year. I never thought I would do a thing like this. I love school so much, but I think I need to take time to focus on me, and really examine what I want. It will be good for me, I think. I will read for pleasure. I will work. I will travel.

Speaking of travel, as I mentioned, I'm in Italy right now. My current situation is hilariously parallel to what I'm processing in life. I am in a small province of Pisa, in the gorgeous Italian countryside. Really, I wish I could explain how beautiful it is, but that would be impossible. I came here alone. I was graciously offered a place to stay in exchange for volunteer work. I am volunteering at a Buddhist institute. Please let this sink in because I am neither Buddhist, nor do I speak much Italian. (I can say basic phrases and ask for coffee and wine...you know, the important things in life.) Everyone here is Buddhist, and very few of them speak English. This is a completely different culture for me, and I love it. The people I have interacted with so far have been nothing but kind to me, even with our language barrier. These next few days are going to test me in new ways, and I couldn't be happier. I believe I can learn a lot here. I will learn a lot here. I will take in the culture and be happy to do my work. I will have time to think and write and take walks in the countryside. Maybe I'll find some answers. Maybe not. But I cannot sit back and let a learning opportunity pass.

Here's to being lost. Here's to being okay with being lost. Here's to the mistakes I will make in my journey to learn. Here's hoping I'll find my way out.