Looking back, moving forward

Caring for silkie chickens is one of the best perks of our new lifestyle. (Lydia Noyes)

Notes from the Field are reports from young women volunteering in ministries of Catholic sisters. The project began in the summer of 2015 when, working with the Catholic Volunteer Network, we enlisted four young women working in Honduras, Thailand, Ethiopia and the United States to blog about their experiences. The fall 2015 series presents two more women, both volunteering with sisters' ministries in the United States.

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The middle of February will mark the midway point for the year of service that my husband, Ian, and I have committed to through AmeriCorps at the Big Laurel Learning Center. The next few weeks will be an important time for us as we discern what our relationship to this organization will be six months from now. Regardless of whether we decide to renew our AmeriCorps commitment for a second year, find other work within the organization, or move away entirely, the fact remains that right now, over half of our time of service still remains. The Big Laurel spring and summer calendar is filling up, and we intend to make the very best of these opportunities as they come.

The end of January was an unexpected opportunity to slow down our lives when Winter Storm Jonas ripped through our region and dumped 17 inches of snow on us in 24 hours. Because our remote location didn't allow snowplows to make it up to our dirt road for several days, driving into town, or even out of our driveway, was unthinkable. For better or for worse, our small mountain community was essentially snowed in.

The snowstorm stranded us in our cozy home for several days. (Lydia Noyes)

Luckily for our marriage, Ian and I had not been fighting before the storm hit: Being trapped in a home for days with an angry person would have been misery. Instead, both of us enjoyed this unexpected opportunity to go on long, snowy walks through the woods and to work on projects that had been sitting on our to-do list for too long. I put a seed order together for our summer garden and Ian built a seed-starting table in our garden shed from scrap material that was lying around the property. Spring was obviously on our minds.

After the snowstorm buried us, the quarter-mile that separated our home from our closest neighbors and Big Laurel hosts, Sr. Kathy O'Hagan and Sr. Gretchen Shaffer, seemed all but insurmountable, but as the days wore on the incentive of company beyond each other motivated us to make the trek. Dinner and game nights became a snow-day staple, and Ian and I had the unique experience of teaching one of our nerdy college strategy games, Dominion, to two Catholic sisters who had never played anything like it. Sister Kathy was especially enthusiastic.

Now that the snow has melted in a string of 60-degree days, the rest of winter will speed by for us. In the middle of February, we will fly to Baltimore for a midyear conference with other Notre Dame AmeriCorps volunteers throughout the country. This event should be an opportunity to be refreshed and inspired by the good work our peers are doing in countless organizations throughout the country.

March will hit us with the full intensity of spring groups. For three out of four weeks, Big Laurel will host students from schools that are on spring break, including our alma mater, Calvin College. These groups will be a jolt out of the quiet solitude we foster in our daily lives on the mountain, but they should provide for a season of good company, intentional conversations and an opportunity to share our passion for the work that we do. Somehow, I convinced my younger sister to sign up for the trip, and to say I'm looking forward to showing her my new life would be an understatement.

The view during a Saturday afternoon walk along the borders of the JASMER land trust. (Lydia Noyes)

Our personal lives will also be busy, as our single free weekend will be spent running a 15-mile trail race through the mountains of West Virginia. Don't feel too bad for us: We signed up for this race with our own free will, though it seemed more manageable before our treadmill broke down.

Come April, our weekends will be spent making connections and learning from others while off the mountain. We plan to attend the Mother Earth News Fair in Asheville, North Carolina, where we hope to pick up additional homesteading skills to add to our ever-expanding repertoire at our mountain home. We also have been invited to be speakers at a conference titled "Caring For Our Common Home" at the John XXIII Pastoral Center in Charleston, West Virginia. We will join other breakout speakers in discussions about what it means to care for God's creation through practical living. At this point, talking for an hour and a half in front of a crowd seems overwhelming, but I'm optimistic that by April, we will be ready.

The summer season will bring in a rush of activity as we welcome an assortment of children from our immediate community up to the mountain to attend weeklong ecology summer camps. High school students will aid us as volunteer mentors and companions to the younger campers. These camps are a wonderful experience for children in this region to get an opportunity to interact with nature in a more intimate way and to have a summer adventure away from home. Camps like this have been a Big Laurel tradition for decades.

We also anticipate working outside. This spring, I'll be putting the seeds I've ordered to use by starting a large vegetable garden as long as we can find a way to plow through the thick clay that coats the mountain. If all goes well, we will soon be looking into obtaining livestock beyond birds: rabbits and honey bees are on the shortlist.

This post marks the end of my writing for Global Sisters Report, but it marks only the beginning of our experiences at Big Laurel. The next few months will be full and exciting, and I'd be honored if you would continue to read along on my personal blog, Living Echo. I will be continuing to tell the stories of the intense joys and inevitable hardships that have become a part of our lives since the day we moved to this tiny mountain retreat center in the middle of Appalachia. The rest of our experience will be many things, but boring isn't one of them.

The new table Ian built for me in our garden shed where we are starting seeds. (Lydia Noyes)

[Lydia Noyes and her husband, Ian, are volunteers with the Notre Dame Mission Volunteers AmeriCorps program. She is a 2015 graduate of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She has degrees in environmental studies and international development.]

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