Duke student in service project tries to maintain habits

To answer my call for adventure, I found a job with the Appalachia Service Project and shipped off to Whitesville, W.V., for the summer.

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Josh Stillman
Josh Stillman is spending his summer with the Appalachia Service Project. He files this report from Whitesville, West Virginia.
It’s been a struggle to maintain my normal habits for the last few weeks. At first I exercised every day. I also read and kept a journal, showered and shaved. My day-to-day didn’t change much aside from the location. But my grip is slipping. The realities of ASP staff are closing in on all sides and slowly forcing out the things that used to define me.

For a while I thought that my true self was getting lost in the ruckus. I love to read and write, I believe in regular exercise, and I’ve always been proud of my personal hygiene. Those are my priorities. And in many ways, priorities are what establish our individuality. But where does individuality fit into eight demanding weeks of humanitarian work? I find I’m having to seriously reevaluate my former priorities in light of the circumstances. We wake up at 7am every morning, if not earlier, and are on the job until at least 12:30 at night. There’s some scattered down time in there but it’s nothing like having an entire evening off after a nine to five. We’re on the clock in our down time. We’re on the clock when we eat dinner, when we go to the bathroom, when we practice songs on the guitars we barely know how to play. ASP staff is full-time in the most literal sense of the phrase—twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, for eight straight weeks. This is why my friends thought I was crazy when I left for the summer. They may be right. But it’s exactly the totality of it, the massive shift in priorities, that is defining this experience. I no longer hold myself to a rigid curriculum of reading and writing and exercise. In retrospect those were distractions. Now I’ll stay out longer at worksites, taking more detailed notes on constructions projects or talking with family members. In fact, I would rather be out swapping stories with the families than cooped up in the staff office grinding through Mark Twain. The staff and I are hugely attached to the people for whom we are working—they are our top priority. And if it comes down to not reading for weeks and abandoning self-care, so be it. We’re out here for them. My personal life comes second. We’re not opposed to an occasional dip in the river—when in Rome—but only if we have thoroughly completed our day’s work.

This is the first opportunity I’ve had to send an update in at least three weeks. I’ve spent those weeks discovering just how much immersion this position requires. I look back on the first couple of weeks, when I was so focused on my own interests, with a tinge of regret. That’s time that I could have spent dedicating myself to the job. At least I’m now starting to realize the difference. Though there’s still much room for improvement, my efforts have easily doubled. Of course the commitment has its pitfalls: my last shower was on Tuesday, and I haven’t shaved since week two (though it’s essentially an ASP rite of passage to grow a beard). I’m also completely exhausted, and am eagerly eyeing my air mattress as I write this. Yet despite the madness I am deeply content. There are few things in my experience quite like making tangible improvements in strangers’ lives. What’s more, they’re no longer strangers but dear friends.

This all sounds oddly mature coming out of my mouth. While I’m not sure I fully recognize or understand the new me, I have to say I’m proud of it.

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