Slow-motion emotions: Being in the now

This article appears in the Notes from the Field feature series. View the full series.
On my way to Thailand last year, a view of the clouds from our plane. (Bridgid O’Brien)

Nong Khai, Thailand — Notes from the Field is GSR’s summer blogging project. Working with the Catholic Volunteer Network, we’ve enlisted four young women working in ministries of Catholic sisters around the world – Honduras, Thailand, Ethiopia and the United States – to blog about their experiences, each for six weeks.


Dear God, I spend so much time reliving yesterday
or anticipating tomorrow that I lose sight of the only time
that is really mine, the present moment.
– The Book of Daily Prayer

I’ve known since taking my seat on the 32-hour journey to Nong Khai, and even before, that there would be another eerily similar flight lurking in the future. The difference would be that the next flight would be heading back to the United States, and at the time it seemed light years away. I came to Thailand with a one-way ticket, a ticket that grounded me in being in Thailand. But even light years are closer than they seem, and grounds can be shaken with such intensity they make us tumble.

In exactly 80 hours, after another 32-hours of traveling, I will be stepping onto U.S. ground after 11 months in Thailand. While I am excited to be able to say that I have flown around the entire circumference of the world, the rapidly approaching nature of my departure from Nong Khai tends to provoke a series of emotions other than excitement — such as fear, anxiousness, sorrow and a feeling of being unready.

This is not to say that it has been easy to be so far from home, my family and my friends this past year. Nothing showed me that more than knowing there was no way I could go home after finding out about the sudden death of my grandfather in early April; I could not attend his services or be with my families members during this time of grieving. I can’t wait to give parents and siblings the greatest bear hugs I have ever given when I get home. I can’t wait to just lie on my bed and talk to my best friend for hours. I can’t wait to attend football games at my alma mater, Boston College, and see friends that I have not seen in over two years. I can’t wait to finally be able to see my sister’s college in Tampa, Florida, and to help her move in to start her junior year at the end of August. It kills me that I missed my brother’s high school graduation in June, but I can’t wait to move him into school at Boston University come the fall. I can’t wait to make Thai food for my friends and family and show off my impressive culinary skills. I can’t wait to go to the Cape and bask in the New England summer air with my parent and siblings. I can’t wait to go to my Papa’s grave and plant fresh flowers.

One of the girls I live with, Nonnie, playing in the rice field next to our house. (Bridgid O’Brien)

Yet still, my body is flooded with anxiety knowing that I am going home in four days. I have formed friends and family and a sense of home here that are just as special and real as those that I left behind in the United States. I am going to miss teaching Nonnie how to ride a bike and playing together in the rice field. I am going to miss Pi Bon telling me “thank you for you” in her broken English as I leave work every day. I am going to miss working with Pik and Wasana in product packaging at Hands of Hope, an income-generating project for men and women living with HIV/AIDS, every Friday.

I am going to miss having the teenagers over every Sunday to the volunteer house for activities. I am going to miss taking Prio, Wansai and Belle to the markets on Fridays to go grocery shopping. I am going to miss making funny faces and impromptu dance battles with one of my patients, Suban. I am going to miss Bon’s adorable dimpled smile he charmingly reveals after we play karate kick each other. I am going to miss my mixed English/Thai conversations with Phermsack as we do medical outreach in the villages. I am going to miss coloring with Panda after work. I am going to miss learning from Krisda about nursing, medicine and Thai culture.

I am going to miss listening to Maew and Sunti speak Isaan, the local dialect of the region, to each other on outreach car rides and trying to figure out what they are saying. I am going to miss cuddling with Belle and watching TV with her during my overnight duty. I am going to miss hearing Bee sing while he works and hearing him yell Fasai, my Thai nickname, when I walk past. I am going to miss Villai’s laugh. I am going to miss Jiem’s motherly nature and our conversations at Monday Night Community Dinner. I am going to miss Ying adorably trying to sing songs in English off of my iPod. I am going to miss Nong Gaa blowing me kisses and leaping into my arms when I arrive at Hands of Hope.

Nong Gaa, 3, playing with bubbles. (Bridgid O’Brien)

Not only am I trying to process the emotions that encompass saying goodbye to Nong Khai, but also those emotions that come with saying hello to Boston. I am anxious about moving back home with my parents after a six-year hiatus. I am anxious about being in social situations again. Having conducted most of my interactions in Thai or combination of English and Thai in the past 11 months, I have lost some of my ability to have coherent conversations in only English. I know that for the first few months being home I will accidently slip Thai into my conversations, which will most likely encounter odd and confused stares.

Since working at the Care Center here in Nong Khai, I have decided to pursue nursing as a career, but I am anxious about starting to take nursing prerequisite classes in the fall and spring as well as working and applying for nursing programs simultaneously. I am anxious about losing the person I have found myself to be in Thailand once I return to the States. I am anxious about the prospect of dating when I go home. I am anxious about just how “weird” volunteering for the past two years has made me become and about not fitting in with the groups I surrounded myself with in college. I am anxious about the grief process I am ultimately going to go through when I get home. I am anxious about losing the glow I developed in Nong Khai.

The problem with all of these built-up anxieties is that I do not have to experience them just yet. But they sneak into my every day activities, making it easier to take me out of being in Thailand. Right now I am in a weird mix of trying to experience all that Nong Khai has to offer knowing very well that those are the things I am going to miss, while also preparing for what is to come next in just a few days. But really, the only moment is now. Right now.

Sr. Pranee, one of the Good Shepherd Sisters here in Nong Khai, praying for me and my travels at my final community dinner. (Bridgid O’Brien)

In the 11 months that I have been in Thailand, I have had to say goodbye to eight different members of the Garden of Friendship community. Most of the individuals died due to secondary infections and complications due to HIV, such as tuberculosis and hepatitis C. Maybe it is all the Buddhist jargon I have subconsciously picked up here, but reflecting on these deaths, I cannot help but reflect on the impermanence of life and how important it is to be mindful of the present moment.

How important it is to stay here. To be here. To rest here. To bask in the presence of God’s mystery. How important it is to be still. To be patient. To be open. To let everything move in you. How important it is to sit here. To think here. To notice here. To make the most of what you are doing. How important it is to be thankful. To be joyful. To be delighted. To remember that even the hardest days give way to new life. How important it is to listen here. To play here. To live here. To know the power of hearts speaking. How important it is to just be. To just love. To trust that that is and always will be enough.

[Bridgid O’Brien is an international Good Shepherd Volunteer in Nong Khai, Thailand, working with an organization that provides care, resources and income-generating opportunities for individuals affected and infected with HIV/AIDS.]