I walk up to the front door and never know what to expect. One day I am sarcastically yelled at, and another I’m greeted by a sweet and soft-spoken volunteer. I enter the house not knowing if I’ll be driving to an appointment in Boston, taking a woman to the train station, or staying in the house for the next few hours. I might have a vulnerable conversation, or I might update medication in the office closet. I could even be asked to do an art project like making a bulletin board that’s fit for the living room. I don’t know if I should be ready to spend time with the women or to focus on administration work. But it’s not too hard to put a smile on your face when you enter a house that feels like love and the staff are full of life.
I go with the flow and today, I drive. It’s just an ordinary pick-up, but I find myself in this place again where I’m not sure how to act - or if I should act. I’m picking up a woman in the program from counseling, and I can tell that something is not right. Then she tells me, “I’m gonna have a little breakdown with you,” and promptly starts crying. I’ve always been confused in emotional social interactions, so I sit in the driver’s seat wondering what to do. In this instance, with the layers of trauma she’s been through, I’m even more uncertain. Should I give her a hug, ask if she wants to talk about it, or just proceed in silence?
I build up some mental confidence, rub her back, and drive on, letting her express herself as much as she’d like to. She tries to apologize. I tell her she doesn’t have to. We drive on quietly, listening to the bumps on the road and feeling the cold outside air mixed with cigarette smoke.
We pull in the driveway and she’s out of the door before I take the keys out. I tell myself not to take it personally as I hurry behind her. She left the front door ajar and I enter to find a commotion of laughter and storytelling. She’s gone, probably up to her room, but another woman wearing bright patterned leggings reenacts a happening from her day. Everyone is joining in the entertainment except the one who’s alone upstairs. She’s feeling hurt and misunderstood, one floor above the contagious giggles. This is the inevitable clash of emotions in a safe-house like Amirah.
At one moment we’ll be sharing the couch watching La La Land, and the next, I’ll be listening to a constant flow of the f-bomb. We’ll paint watercolors together and then a few minutes later, I’ll notice anxiety hover just below one woman’s agitated skin. We’ll argue about our favorite drink from Starbucks. I say a dark roast coffee or maybe even a almond milk latte, but she always goes for the caramel macchiato. And I always seem to lose.
Every day I come to Amirah, I know I’ll be asked how I’m doing. Except it’s not the sort of question that’s thrown out just to break the ice before I’m told what to do for the day. One staff member or another will inevitably redirect their attention to me, away from their work, and say, “How are you, my dear?” Nobody in this house wants a pat answer, so I jump right into a mini-counseling session by dumping my school stress, relationship issues, or growing sense of senioritis. It’s refreshing to be around by an administrator who’s unaffected by the diseases of individualism and productivity. Certainly they work hard, but they prioritize connecting with each person who walks through the front door.
The time I’ve spent at Amirah has helped me step into my own person. It’s taught me that people are not so different from one another, despite their opposing stories. As I step on to the next stage of my life, I’m challenged and further prepared to reach outside of myself, toward the “other,” where I’ll actually find a friend. This time has given me a little more practice in calling compassion out of myself when I see someone who looks different.
This person is endearing, she’s funny, she’s crass, and she’s obstinate. She has pink hair, she wears heels, she goes tanning all the time, and she listens to pop music. But she’s a young woman trying to live in the 21st-century, just like me. I’ve learned to find a voice with these women and with the staff at Amirah. When I share my ideas, I know they’ll be appreciated. Amirah taught me to give, to love and participate. But it also taught me to receive. I can’t be in a constant mode of accomplishing when I’m at the house. I must slow down, accept the voice of a survivor who takes the time to affirm me and encourage me to move on at a difficult point in my own life. I must let myself stop working when the staff gives me time to process.
I’ve found a community, new friends with whom I give and take.
Emily Nelson served as a Program Intern this past year with Amirah. If you are interested in finding out more about our internships or applying for a summer internship, please check out this link.