Nine months ago during my graduation weekend, I sat in an audience of students committed to post-graduate service and listened as a speaker shared with us her thoughts on our coming year. Though not all her words stuck that day, I do remember those she borrowed from renowned Irish poet Seamus Heaney. From his poem, “Postscript,” she read: “You are neither here nor there/ A hurry through which known and strange things pass/ As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways/ And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.”
For me and my three roommates in the Bon Secours Volunteer Ministry program, we are living Heaney’s poetry this year. We are “neither here nor there” not in a scattered sense, but in the sense that we occupy two worlds at once. Half our hearts- our upbringings, our families, many friends- lie in comfortable suburbs hundreds of miles and infinite degrees of difference away. The other halves of our hearts have become deeply rooted in a whole new world: that of Southwest Baltimore. We have found in his place, under decaying facades- the littered sidewalks, the boarded-up buildings- a vibrant community, a spirited population, a place at once able to push our boundaries and also able to pull us completely in.
Again and again, we have found ourselves surprised, one might say, by the “big soft buffetings” we encounter in our workplaces. An emergency room patient recently told [my community member], upon hearing she only worked there until July, “Well, I’ll have to come back a lot before then”. And every few weeks, [another of my community members] comes home bearing two or three puzzles as gifts; an elderly woman she serves has almost nothing, but somehow comes up with something to give. When a hospital health far had leftover decorations, [the last of my community members] traveled to patient rooms handing them out, and even an old man, gravely ill in bed, said yes, he would love a red heart balloon. At the Family Support Center a few weeks ago, I stood and watched a barely 3 year old comfort her tiny, crying baby sister, saying: “Ji’Yah, don’t cry. You’re ok. Mommy’s in class. I’m here now. I love you- really. Don’t cry.”
Moments like these- of irony and puzzles, of red balloons and unconditional love- dazzle us. They are things we might have deemed strange in our old world, but these things are now fitting and known in our new world, now known in our hearts. For us volunteers, if the landscape of our past is “there,” and the streets of our present “here”, we truly do reside in an in-between this year. It is not hazy or disorienting; the edge of a canyon between two worlds is a perfect place to find fresh air.
When the 6 year old I babysat asked me, before I left for Baltimore, what “doing service” was, I told him a definition in the simplest terms I could think of: “It’s holding hands with someone you don’t know.” Now I would tell him it is that and much more. It is surrendering your heart. To borrow the words of Seamus Heaney, “It is letting your heart be caught off guard and blown open.”