Showing up

Editor’s note: Nashville WELDER and talented humanitarian photographer, Haley George, recently returned from a two-month stint in Southeast Asia where she traveled to four countries to photograph for NGOs of various sizes and focuses. Haley is passionate and gifted at capturing and sharing the stories of people from cultures unlike her own. She has a knack at not only documenting joyful moments from around the world, but also creating them.

Haley has graciously shared a handful of her journal entries and photos from the trip which provide a vulnerable look into what it means to pursue what you love even when an end result is completely uncertain.

We hope the words below inspire you to cast aside your fears and worries, and wholeheartedly pursue your passions.

December 26, 2015 — Nashville
There’s one question that won’t leave, followed by a thousand other little questions: “What’s holding you back from doing what you feel called to do?” Am I brave enough to go to Thailand alone? Is that even the question at hand? Am I supposed to go? Is there a place there for me?

I want to have the courage, the means, the willingness, the surety. I need to have a place for me to stay for free. I want to have some sense of community. From the Skype conversations I’ve had with organizations there recently, I think there is much work to be done — important, meaningful, beautiful work that will matter and increase their reach.

There isn’t pay.

I believe my work is valuable, important, worth paying for, but I also know lack of budget is the only thing that’s kept me from doing what I feel I’m created to do.

I have spoken with a variety of organizations, but every conversation relating to this topic of budget has been the same. Even after attempts to highlight the importance of an investment like photography, I find myself in the same place. So, I’m going to try something different.

“The idea that we could have avoided many of life’s difficulties if we had taken things more cautiously is too foolish to be entertained for a moment. As I look back on your past I am so convinced that what has happened hitherto has been right, that I feel that what is happening now is right, too. To renounce a full life and its real joys in order to avoid pain is neither Christian nor human.”
-Dietrich Bonhoeffer

December 30, 2015 — Nashville
The back and forth seesaw of my brain screams, “Just book it!” “But what if (fill in the blank: they don’t actually need me, I’m hurting more than helping, my images aren’t good enough, it’s not safe)?” I’m anxious for the conversation that I’ll have this afternoon about another possible job. I’m nervous about the same facets as I always am — not knowing what to say, approaching it incorrectly, confronting the money topic. I don’t doubt my heart, or my passions, but the words I use to explain them feel small, nondescript, and unconvincing. Why do I think they need to be convincing, so long as they are true?

January 2, 2016 — Nashville
Do I book Thailand without any solid, scheduled plans? Is that putting faith in what I feel created to do, or just a stupid, rash decision? I want to know what it means for my heart to be undivided in believing I’m called to something and chasing it. Although most of my efforts have been met with “no’s” in the past, I’m more confident than ever that I need to be doing this work. “Keep going” is the phrase that I may as well have tattooed on my forehead. The confirmation and surety I wish were there can’t be the things to keep me from moving forward.

January 5, 2016 — Nashville
I am leaving for Thailand in 21 days…booked, one way! I am ecstatic, terrified, at peace, anxious, all while still waiting on responses. I believe these jobs will take shape. Emily Dickinson wrote, “The truth must dazzle gradually or every man be blind,” and I’m choosing to believe what’s enfolding will dazzle me, even if gradually. I have prepared, waited, and been forced to acknowledge fear. I’ve been injected with confidence about my calling, and my community here has spoken such genuine affirmation over who I am.

My spirit is nudging me to go, so I’m going.

As it stands now, this trip is not funded or paid (except by my beloved credit card points), but I don’t believe that can be the thing to hold me back any longer from doing what I feel called to do. I am eager, but trying not act impatiently. I am scared of traveling alone for practical reasons as much as emotional ones. I hope to come back not full of thoughts that I can conquer anything, but knowing it is God that conquers.

I don’t even know when I’ll come back.

January 7, 2016 — Nashville
I had an incredible conversation last night with the director of another organization I’m going to work with in Thailand. We talked for an hour and a half — I now have an airport pickup, a place to stay and another job. He talked honestly about what they’re learning as an organization, and I was real about the tightrope that I walk– the one that has me believing my work is worth so much, all the while understanding that the organizations I chat with truly are on shoestring budgets. He wants to pay me something if they’re able. If I look at the big picture (which is my natural tendency), I feel terrified about the finances surrounding this trip and life in general.

There’s only peace when I focus on where I am, realizing I have everything I need to take the next step.

January 26, 2016 — Nashville
I was on the verge of tears with an anxious tummy as we arrived at the Nashville airport this morning. I’m so grateful for the friends, hugs, and the taco dinner that sent me off. I’m grateful for home with all its community, comfort, safety, and love. I leave for this trip with great confidence that I’ve taken faithful steps.

It’s scary because I’m alone, because I have such loose and unclear expectations. Figuring out the schedule of my (now five!) jobs feels a bit like juggling…I think I’ll be coming home from the Philippines (I’m thankful relationships from the job I did last year are still very good), and stopping for more work in Cambodia along the way. But none of that is booked yet. I need to believe and know that no part of my identity nor self-worth rides on this trip or on me doing anything.

I want to be present, to live out of gratitude and freedom that celebrates where I am instead of how it could play into my future or career.

January 27, 2016 — Los Angeles
I was in Los Angeles for the day, and am now en route to Bangkok. In the craziest turn of events so far, and through no steps of my own other than just going, I’ve been connected to a job that will more than pay for this trip. It worked out the very day I got on the plane to leave. I could literally cry with gratitude at the growth that’s been cultivated in the process. And now, this — an answered prayer and far-exceeded expectation that affirms all the steps thus far. I can’t stop smiling.

February 2, 2016 — Maesot, Thailand
I’ve had such a slow start to this trip. In some ways it is nice, in other ways weird, to not hit the ground running. Tomorrow, things move. I want to be present and grateful for these slow moments to just “be” — to take a cold shower and talk to my Thai mama, to have coffee, do the dishes and journal.

I had two great meetings yesterday — I love learning about the work these organizations are doing and actually spending time with the people that will become friends over the next month. A lot of what we talked about yesterday was about giving and generosity. What it means to give in a way that is in accordance with the gifts you have been given. How to offer to others the opportunity to give by providing the space and encouragement for them to recognize what their gifts actually are. This makes me think about how I use my gifts to enter into stories in a way that invites my community, friends, and wide circle of acquaintances to give of theirs.

I hope each person I meet here leaves our time believing that their story matters and that they have so many gifts to celebrate. I think our stories are the greatest gifts we can give.

February 25, 2016 — Maesot, Thailand
The inconsistency of doing this work over the last few years brings with it quite a learning curve. I re-learn what I’m doing at the start of each trip — regain confidence, release schedule, and remember purpose. I am bolder now than I was a month ago. The language barrier will always be hard, but I’ve leaned into gratitude for that instead of using it as an excuse to leave walls standing between myself and the story I’m encountering.

During translation, even very short sentences, I’ve been able to watch reactions, process questions in my head, hold eye contact, and take note of how people respond. If I was having a direct conversations in English, I’d probably have missed the way MJ fiddled his scarred fingers or Khaing perked up to talk about protecting her children. I have two more days in Maesot, and I’m so grateful for the relationships I’ve built here.

I feel lucky to bear witness to the fact that there can be rich, deep community living abroad, and to have been welcomed in even though I’m only here “short-term.” I’m grateful for my Thai home and family, for rides on motos and in the back of trucks, for a numb bum from sitting in bamboo shacks. I’m grateful for sweat dripping down my stomach, the smell of smoky burn season, the pink hue of the sky, pants with red dirt covered knees, and permanently dirty hands. I’m grateful for the closed-eye, open mouth laughs and the holding hands with kids whose names I can’t spell without Tin Tin, my translator-turned-friend’s, help.

“You did put in the work and that should make you proud. But you are only as relevant as the beauty you let flow through you. No human has created anything. You have only rearranged what you found in your hands. That is a humbling thought.”
-Jedidiah Jenkins

March 5, 2016 — Langkawi, Malaysia
I’m experiencing a new kind of peace and freedom in my work. Though my striving is sure to rear its head again and again in seasons of ‘home’ and ‘waiting,’ I fully believe that there will be a path for me to accomplish exactly what it is I’m supposed to. The pressure I put on myself to make things happen is released when I am able to disconnect who I am from what I do. My best work comes from this freedom.

“Questions imply answers. If God has put the question in my heart, then He must hold the answer in His. I will seek them from him. I will wait, but not until I have knocked.” 
-George MacDonald

March 9, 2016 — Bacolod, Philippines
Yesterday was the best. I walked away from interviews and photos at a micro-finance savings group with a smile on my face that nothing could have wiped off, saying over and over “I HAVE THE BEST JOB IN THE WORLD!”

Teresita dancing, old ladies copying my open-mouth grin, Maria’s definition of hope in her interview, Narciso’s suave advice to marry a foreigner promptly followed by the joking slap of his wife, and dreadlocked hair from riding in the back of the truck — these are moments that are simple but keep me present and on my toes in a way that nothing can at home.

I have nine more days of work before I start the long trek back to Nashville. I am ready to go home from this trip — not because I am tired of what I’m doing, bored, or don’t love anything about being here. It’s easier to accept going home this time than it has been on some of my trips in the past because I don’t feel so desperate for things to work out. I trust that there will be more trips, more work, more of this living fully alive…. so it’s easier to let go of this one.

March 11, 2016 — Bacolod, Philippines
Lots of driving today, and a really early morning. Both stories I heard today were really special. Two different ladies wept in front of me as they talked about their hope, while remembering places of total hopelessness. One with a grandson who went to the hospital with severe acute malnutrition but now has energy to keep up with the rest of his siblings. The other lady who wants to do her very best to support her children, but is still recovering from a life-saving surgery. The depth of their hurt and desperation has carved room for the joy and hope they now have. I think it must be just as powerful for them to talk about that transformation — to name it — as it is for me to hear it.

Hope is contagious.

I am so humbled to enter these communities and witness how they live, how generous they are, and the brightness in their eyes. I believe I am beautiful and a blessing when they tell me I am over and over, and I hope they believe it when I tell them they are, too.

March 18, 2016 — Manila, Philippines
I don’t want to forget anything, but it is inevitable. Many of the questions I began this journey with are now replaced by new questions. When should I hold my memories and these stories and when should I let them go? How do I carry the lessons I’ve learned honestly? How do I not worry and simply let them affect me as they wish? How do “big” experiences find their places in a life when all the simple things matter too?

How do I continue to love and do whatever is put in front of me with excellence — even when it’s not exactly what I want to be doing? What does it mean to live widely awake and alive all the time, and to not just reform this trip into the perfect, but to also remember the exhausting, stinky, painful, and forgettable with all the good?

I don’t know how to answer those questions on paper, or if I ever will… but I know I’m walking around differently than I was two months ago. There’s a confidence that has come from taking one step at a time. I think part of the next step is in this lesson:

In so many of the villages I’ve visited, the people have told me it was a huge blessing to them for me to be there – I don’t know what to do with that.

I’d have skipped over their “blessing” statements altogether had they not stopped to make it really clear. At the birthday party, in goodbyes with the savings group, when Jenelly gifted us the Puto cheese muffins– they all looked into my eyes and said “We are so blessed that you came.” This overshadows the moments when I doubt my purpose in my travels (i.e. “am I helping or hurting” or “what am I really doing here” insecurities).

I’m humbled to be called a blessing because I did nothing but show up.

I tend to think blessings require action on my part. But I’m learning that my simple presence can bless others before I do anything or even use my gifts. I feel compelled to offer this to others: the belief that their presence is valued and important, and that they are seen. I’ve loved naming the gifts I see in people here, and not just as a “you too” — but speaking the specific and unique beauty I recognize. Those I’ve encountered here are just as much of a blessing to me… it is mind blowing that they are so generous with their lives and struggles and stories.

Moving forward, I want to name the gifts I see in my friends as well. I want them to believe that before having a unique talent or doing something big and crazy, it’s the act of simply showing up that often becomes the most beautiful gift to the world.

For more of Haley’s work, visit