Building Awareness

I didn’t go home last night.

When night fell, I stood outside in a valley of bricks, red blocks crisscrossed in white zigzags that somehow tied us to the earth yet seemed celestial emblazoned in the moonlight. Tall buildings sprouted around us like mountains, sheltering our silence, but still the wind whispered to us, sending cold thoughts crawling across our skin.

Last night I didn’t go home.

Last night I slept outside in a shack only six days old. Last Sunday I gathered with some new friends in a partnership between NCPIRG and Oxfam at N.C. State. We spent the afternoon hammering, sawing, measuring (in so many ways), and assembling an eight-by-eight shack that we would live in for the week. And we were one of maybe twenty groups to set up house in the Brickyard to live beneath the stars.

It’s called Shack-a-Thon and it’s an annual fundraiser led by Habitat for Humanity each year. The various groups compete to raise the most money (to donate to Habitat, of course) and the winners get an advantage when the next year’s Shack-a-Thon rolls around. The rules are simple: You must always have at least one person in the shack (two at night) and you need to raise at least a little money every day.

Check. Check. And check.

I had another busy week this time, so after build-day I only spent a few hours in the shack past stopping by from time to time to check in, give some encouragement, and color a few more koozies, which we were selling as our fundraiser (I always got a little excited when I came back to see one of my designs had sold).

After my analysis test yesterday, though, I was able to make a bigger commitment–so not only did I sign up to stay in the shack during the last two hours of the event this afternoon, I also signed up to stay in the shack last night.

I was joined by two friends from NCPIRG. We shared some stories in the flashlight-lit space inside our cube of service, and since we were in a fortuitous spot where the school’s wi-fi reached us, we watched a movie together before calling it a night.

I would have slept beautifully.

But I dressed in jeans (to keep warm) and denim pockets aren’t comfortable for side-sleepers like me.

Thankfully there was an extra blanket, too, because right beside the door as I was, the breeze welcomed me with slick tendrils of touch all night.

Then at six the trucks came to refill the vending machines in the buildings nearby.

And at seven they began leaf-blowing the entire Brickyard.

Yet even so, it was a good night, and though my sleep was not continuous, it was restful. The best part was actually waking up to peek out beneath the curtain to see the bright sunbeams sparkling across those bricks now completely freed of leaves. It was a warming sight, those shining stones beneath us. I wanted to crawl out and spread myself beneath the sun, draw in each ray and fill myself with limitless light.

Instead I finished some paperwork that was due today.

In the afternoon when I returned, I recolored and elaborated on some of our designs to make them more appealing to a wider audience. For the most part, the changes were successful–in two hours, I sold five koozies until we only had two remaining. It was a great delight–and it filled me with happiness at a job well done.

Packing up my things from the shack I felt a little wistful. Here I had helped build this structure. Here I had helped create, sell, and donate to a worthy cause. Here I had spent the night, graced by the wind, staring at the stars, awakened by sunlight. And here I was letting go of everything, knowing when morning comes tomorrow, we’ll be tearing it down and the Brickyard–so full of life, community, this entire week, will be empty again.

It only occurred to me as I carried my bags back home that I hadn’t been home in more than a whole day. For a moment I felt homesick. The unmade bed I rolled out of yesterday morning. The pile of laundry I really need to wash this weekend. The clutter on my desk where I rest my arms as I type up my homework.

It’s not perfect, but it’s home. It’s mine.

And I knew it was all there for me. I knew it was there and I still missed it–that cool feeling when you pull the covers up before they get warm around you, the roughness of my rug under my feet and the extra bit of force needed to push my rolling desk chair over its edge, the dry erase board hanging on my wall that helps me keep track of all the things I’m doing and all the directions I’m traveling in.

I want to be poetic and draw a lofty, pointed parallel to the fact I’m building toward, yet it doesn’t seem possible to twist my words in such a way. It’s a fact with no beautiful face to form: For some, there is no home waiting. And for some, that shack I spent the night in would have been more than they could dream of.

The worst part is, for as bad as I know it must feel, I can’t even imagine what they must go through. I just don’t have that capacity or experience. But I don’t need it to know things need to change, to improve, to stop perpetuating problems and start building solutions. I don’t have all the answers, but at least I have awareness.

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