Home for the holidays: Leaving the 'field' of a yearlong service project for the first time

Eighteen gorgeous eggs that our maturing hens laid in our absence met us upon return from the holidays. (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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Over the summer, Ian and I committed our lives together in marriage. Just 12 days later, we uprooted ourselves from the comfortable city of Holland, Michigan, and moved to the boonies of southwestern West Virginia for a year of service at the Big Laurel Learning Center.

Living and serving at the center has been an adjustment from the comfortable, people-filled lives we lived before. There have been intensely busy periods of hosting groups contrasted with winter months that give us long evenings of isolation with only the radio and an occasional phone call to keep us company.

This period has been hard for us. In the emotional stages of a service experience, we are in survival mode. The novelty of our service has worn off, and the work involved to make lasting changes in the greater community we are living in has been overwhelming and frustrating. Put simply, we are experiencing burnout.

Lonesomeness has also been a theme for us, though we noticed it more in its absence over break than its presence with us on the mountain. We looked forward to the holidays as a welcome break from our stagnating daily routines. It was our hope that getting off the mountain and back into our home communities would provide us with the perspective we needed to reignite our passion for our service.

Yet encouragement came sooner than we expected. The weekend before we departed, two dear friends from my hometown drove the 10 hours that separated us to stay at our home for a few days. Thus, for the first time since we got married, Ian and I had peers to drink good beer with while playing nerdy board games, all in the glow of our cozy wood stove. I truly believe the sum of a good life is an accumulation of simple moments like these. Having them join us brought fresh air into our lives, which had begun to stale almost without our notice.

And if those two were a gust of air, the friends and family waiting for us back home was a veritable windstorm. Throughout the two weeks of our vacation, we traveled through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Kentucky, staying with both sides of the family along the way in a frantic rush to see as efficiently as possible all the people we love and miss.

Logging has started a quarter-mile from our house. (Lydia Noyes)

It was exhilarating, indulgent and entirely exhausting, but exactly what we needed to split up the long, isolating winter we've been experiencing in our rural home so far. The holidays passed us by in a blur of parties and late-night gatherings, most of which we took our timid rescue dog Wendell to. After the intensity of the holidays had passed and the restart date of our jobs loomed closer, we knew it was time to make the return trip.

As we began again the slow drive toward the mountains, it seemed that each hour on the road turned quieter and more somber than the last. The loss of the friends and family we were leaving behind yet again anchored me into my head like a physical weight. It became necessary to remind myself throughout the drive that our rural isolation is and has always been entirely self-inflicted.

Though the drive was unremarkable, our re-entry seemed a little ominous. The weather was the coldest it has been in this region so far, and the subfreezing temperatures didn't warm us to the idea of moving back into our massive, drafty house. We also received a nasty shock upon seeing that a portion of land along the road a quarter-mile from our home is being clear-cut by the timber company that owns it. In our few short months on this ridgeline property I have traveled this stretch of road hundreds of times, and to see it so sacrilegiously denuded is deeply saddening. But what can be done? The company has every right to harvest the timber on its own land.

And even though Wendell was amazing at every home we visited over break, we watched with frustration as he regressed back into fearful behavior on our property, fiercely resisting coming into the house. We had deluded ourselves into thinking that his recent progress would translate into better behavior at home, but sadly, we won't be getting such an easy fix.

These factors compounded to make coming back a weary, heavy experience. However, things immediately improved on re-entry. The saint-like Notre Dame Sr. Kathy O'Hagan had started our wood stove a few hours before our arrival, so we were welcomed home by its cheering glow. Even more exciting was the discovery of a bagful of farm-fresh eggs in our refrigerator, evidently laid in the past weeks by our maturing hens. Even unpacking the car turned out to be fun as we rediscovered thoughtful gifts from loved ones we had received and promptly forgotten about in our rush to stow them away in our car.

Notre Dame Sr. Kathy O'Hagan plays with the mountain dogs. (Lydia Noyes)

The presence of these homey touches did wonders to soften our pervasive sense of loneliness, and within no time, we were back into our comforting routines of domesticity. The holiday blues seem more or less behind us, and I look forward to being refreshed in the quiet solitude we cultivate here. We are living here for a reason, and that reason is that we more or less love it, even the lonely parts.

It's too early for us to know what our impact will be from our year at Big Laurel, much less the greater mountain community that we are working in. However, the opportunity to be refreshed in the company of those we love has given us back our stamina and our will to live with intention in this wild and wonderful corner of West Virginia we get to call our own. I'm looking forward to spring, the further renewal of our passion, and the clarity to continue to see how our gifts and talents can be used most effectively while we are here.

[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.]

Check out Horizons, featuring reflections from younger sisters.