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“Ask him why he is standing up for Holland,”

Adrie nudges me, curious about this large bear of a man, clad in a bright orange shirt and jersey shorts, who has been alternately sinking in his seat then leaping to his feet at the table in front of us, cheering in broken Romanian and what I think might be Gagauzian while emoting dramatically with meatloaf-sized hands and exaggerated facial expressions, for the last 3 hours.  Adrie, compact, a sprightly orange knitted cap sprouting atop his tousled silvery locks, barely grazes the chest hair that one knows must carpet this guy’s sternum. The other man is unusually tall, dark and swarthy for a Moldovan, lending credence to my vague supposition of Turkish heritage.

In spite of the disparity in height and stature, though, at this moment they are twinkling twins, their effusively replicating grins practically flying off their faces as they shake hands, high five, and hug impetuously after the deciding goal slammed into the Costa Rican net and mercifully put an end to the stomach churning suspense of the past half hour. It’s 2:15am, but we linger on the pockmarked street, loathe to loose the camaraderie that has culminated with this euphoric victory.

I dutifully pull together my Romanian translation of Adrie’s awkward English and test the waters:

”Vrea să știe de ce te iubesc atât de mult Olanda.”

The man is laughing maniacally before I even reach the end of my sentence. Screwing up his forehead with effort, he gazes intently into Henri’s upturned face and affirms their ebullient solidarity in sputtering bursts of loosely grammatic English:

“Me,” the man slaps his chest with fanned fingers. “I, me, is me for Germana.  Friend…”he stabs a sausage finger towards the second man who was at the same table all night, “He, he are, he is for Olanda.  Now we is, he, me, you are, we fight together!” He pounds his fist into each other with enough force to break knuckles, then laughs uproariously and claps Adrie, who only staggers slightly, on the back with unbridled glee.  Those in the know, I am coached later, understand that tonight’s win for the Netherlands will now pit them against Germany in the semi-finals the next day.

No need to translate.  The language of sports has again transcended national boundaries.

***

I can’t say that I have ever “got” professional sports and the thrall of fandom that accompanies it. Once, in the late 90’s during the height of the O’Neal-Kobe regency, I rallied myself to join my husband in cheering for the Lakers during their bid for the national championship just to feel what it was like to get so carried away by the movements of a ball through space.  One season was enough, though, and the next year I couldn’t summon the fortitude necessary to sit through interminable time outs, commercials, sportscaster commentary, and incessant camera panning of the courtside seats.  I kept getting up to wash the dishes, or fold the laundry, or recheck the smoke alarm batteries.  Clearly, I was no longer engaged.

Despite having forcibly witnessed the pervasive permeation of championship tournaments into every season back home, I was still a bit surprised to see an equal – well, perhaps even bigger – fervor take over Moldova with the advent of the 2014 FIFA World Cup games, beginning in June.  Wikipedia tells me that the World Cup is the most widely viewed and followed sporting event in the world, exceeding even the Olympic Games; that the cumulative audience of all matches of the 2006 tournament was estimated to be 26.29 billion, with an estimated 715 million people – almost a tenth of the entire population of the planet watching the final match.  This is definitely a bigger deal than the NBA pennant. In Chisinau, the downtown area adjacent to Stefan Cel Mare Park is roped off to corral an area the size of a football field, bookended by two 80-foot projection screens, and crammed with beer stalls, music stages, and picnic tables.  Since Brazil is halfway around the world many of the games are taking place in the small hours of the night; this has not deterred audience attendance in the slightest. Nevertheless, while it has been a hugely popular attraction for PC Volunteers, I have not been one of them.  In fact, I have had only a passing awareness of the competitors wins and losses as they are sporadically sandwiched into the bedlam of my fellow M27’s FB posts recording their emotional last days in Moldova.

So, I’m not really sure why I accepted an invitation from the three Dutch volunteers currently staying at my center to watch the game at a local restaurant last night at 11pm.   11pm?  Anyone who knows me can tell you that all my lights have been dimmed for at least two hours by that time.  Soccer game?  I may be the only suburban California mother who has never watched a game in its entirety.  (I generally did the grocery shopping while the rug rat carried out her requisite team sport sentence.)  But it’s Moldova. And I’m a Peace Corps Volunteer.  And I have come to feel a sense of obligatory hospitality when it comes to the visitors who pay a goodly sum to stay for days and sometimes weeks at a time on the property to volunteer with the beneficiaries, cleaning their bedrooms, cutting their hair, massaging their legs, clipping their toenails. These are damn good people.  I can watch a soccer match with them.

And what a surprise!  After a brief homage to the two teams’ national anthems, the game began, 11:06pm…wtf?  That never happened in a basketball game, from my admittedly limited experience.  And then – what???  They keep playing? For 45 minutes straight? No time outs? No commercial breaks?  No cheerleaders prancing pompoms or costumed mascots cavorting dumbly for the crowd?  I found myself inexplicably riveted by the little ball whipping at mach speed back and forth across the green.  By the second half I was tensed in my seat, yelling at Sneijder to kick the damn ball towards the goal rather than 50 meters backward.  (I can’t say I gleaned anything about game strategy during the first half, but it did feel good to yell.)  By the penalty phase, I was bobbing in and out of my seat along with the vociferously vocal men and one little boy in front of us and the two Scouts from Belgium to our left. And it was about then when our groups’ budding affection blossomed into a fervent, full blown love affair.  We were all strangers, caught together for a brief span of hours in a tiny neighborhood dive 20km from the capital of an eastern European country that most people have never heard of,  who happened to be standing up for Holland even though just three out of the nine of us called it home.  It was one of those surreal and lovely moments that underscore the very best of Peace Corps service.  I couldn’t imagine this happening in Irvine.

***

English.  A game played in Brazil between players from Costa Rica and Holland, viewed on a sheet tacked to the wall of a terrace outside a pizza parlor owned by a Moldovan, by three Belgians, one American, three Dutch, a Moldovan man and boy and a giant of dubious Turkish origins.  And it was the English that threaded it all together.

“Ask him why he is standing up for Holland,” Adrie says, not recognizing how truly ubiquitous spoken English is.  Even here in Moldova, a tiny land-locked, mostly ignored country clinging to Europe’s coattails while trying desperately to escape from Russia’s shadow, it is not unusual to find your server or the person selling you a movie ticket speaking to you in English.  In fact, probably a third of the Peace Corps Volunteers living here never achieve complete fluency in Romanian (I include myself among them,) largely because their partners prefer to converse with them in English.  Strangely, this has been one of the most humbling aspects of my service: I was born into a language that has made it possible for me to be understood almost any place in the world I go.  Having travelled to Morocco, Turkey, Austria, Italy, Germany, Hungary, and Slovakia in the past two years, I still haven’t  encountered a circumstance where English was not spoken by someone in my immediate vicinity.  Just out of curiosity this morning, I looked it up: according to a Slate article dated June 14, , FIFA recently ruled that all of the referees selected for this year’s tournament had to pass a test of written and spoken English in order to ensure that all five officials at a given match can communicate with each other.  Why English, you might think to ask?  (I did.) Why am I, yet again, the lottery winner at the chancy tables of life?  I know that colonialism and geographic hegemony and capitalism and access to printing presses and education have all played their parts; but it is also the immense popularity of English-language media which has fabricated a communication bridge to many more people than I would’ve ever thought possible. Ask any Moldovan how they learned their English, and the majority of them will reference films, music, and sports.  It is both scary and wonderful, simultaneously.

The language of sports is a shared culture of competitive rivalry underscored by the camaraderie of engaging within a common arena.  One can usually always find an entrance into a country or a neighborhood through the gates of the local sports field or around the big screen at the local pub.  People will be cheering and cursing and celebrating and jumping up and down while punching air. And I will never fail to be astounded, and grateful, when it is my beloved English that succeeds in concatenating it all.

Corpses, roses, red lipstick

The other day I was hurtling down the road to Chișinău in a rutiera being piloted in that take-no-prisoners manner typical of most public transportation in Moldova when the brakes were applied forcefully enough to obtain most passengers attention away from their smart phones and tablets (this visual will become more relevant in a moment) to seek the reason for our sudden loss in velocity.  Traffic is pretty much non-existent on the one-lane highways that thread across Moldova, mostly because passing the car in front of you seems to be de rigueur once you’re close enough to read the license plate.  (No matter if the car is doing 80, it must be passed because it is in front of you. You kind of wish they’d apply this same thinking to their education and economic policies.)

We slowed to a relative crawl for about five minutes before a crowd of people carrying balloons, flowers, and candles trailing a căruță provided the explanation: of course – a funeral! We edged our way slowly and respectfully round the procession and were afforded a nice view of the corpse, artfully framed by roses bunched atop yards of mounded tulle, lying in repose on the flatbed of the horse-drawn cart. The red lipstick was a nice touch, despite her obviously advanced years.  Go out in style, I say.

Once the plodding hearse reached the rear view mirror, a number of signs of the cross were proffered before  all heads bent in unison back to their respective screens.   Ah, Moldova!

***

The random juxtaposition of old and new still takes me by surprise, even after two years.  Living as I do so close to the capital and within the physical confines of a western-European designed and funded organization, I am less exposed to the old ways that remain tenaciously embedded in Moldovan village life.  When a beneficiary dies here at the center an ambulance (or at least the Moldovan version of an ambulance) comes to collect the body, transporting it, I assume, to some other location for the family to retrieve later. (Since many of our beneficiaries’ family members live outside of Moldova this could take some time.)

I do have many PCV friends, however, who have attended the departed through the various processes that deliver them to their final resting place, as well as the traditional observances that trail in their wake.

Here’s how it goes*:

  1. Collect expired family member from scene of expiration if this does not happen to be the home.  One incidence I heard about involved a brother and sister driving 2 ½ hours from their village into Chișinău to retrieve their father from the hospital where he died.  Dressing him in his nicest suit, they then loaded him into the back seat of their compact car, positioned upright as there was not enough space for him to recline, which now causes me to wonder how many back seat passengers I pass on the highway might be corpses heading home for burial.
  2. Place family member on table in prominent location in home.  Surround him or her with all available chairs.  Borrow some from the neighbors if possible.   People will be coming and going and staying and talking and sitting in silence and praying for hours and maybe even days.  There’s a lot to remember and honor and say.
  3. Make enough food to feed an army. Or at least all your family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, local government employees and school teachers, resident Peace Corps Volunteer, the neighborhood alimentara owner, rutiera driver, and any other important village contacts who will come to pay respects.  And don’t forget the house wine.  And cognac.
  4. Send someone for lumber to construct a casket.  Send someone else to dig a grave in your family plot in the village cemetery.
  5. Find a căruță if you don’t already have one. Transfer body to wagon bed. Surround with mounds of flowers. Collect people. Parade through the village, down the highway, uphill and down dale, to the final resting place.  Place body in casket, wrestle casket into hole.  Shovel dirt.
  6. On day three, nine and forty, and then on the one and seven year anniversary of the departed’s expiration, repeat step 3. (Without the body, of course.)  On the year anniversaries you must present a circular loaf of bread punctuated by a slender candle wrapped in a dish towel to all your visitors.
  7. And then, of course, every year there’s Paștile Blajilor, or “Memorial Easter” as it’s called by us English-speakers.  On this day, which is traditionally the Monday after the first Sunday following Easter, but usually encompasses that Sunday as well since most Moldovans have so many relatives piled up in the local cemeteries that one day won’t cover them all, families bring huge baskets of food to the cemetery and spend the day visiting, gossiping, and laughing, sharing their biscuiții and bomboane and perjole, most times while standing wedged between monuments and crucifixes and tombstones and knee-high wrought iron fences. Some families are perspicacious enough to crowd a permanent little picnic bench between graves so they have room to set out a nice spread.  Oh and let me pour you some house wine.  And a shot of cognac.

*My intention is not to poke fun at the Moldovan way of doing death. I am trying to convey the utter physicality of it, the deep involvement with the corpse, the practical elements that must be attended to by family and friends, the inability to delegate these tasks to “professionals,” whatever that term actually means besides just being somebody not connected to the dead person.

If you get the sense that Moldovans are much more involved with their dead than, say, your average Neptune Society-card carrying Californian or east coast Congregationalist, I dare say you’re on the right track.  I have not spotted a funeral home anywhere in this country.  Corpses are not yet an incorporated business here.  Moldovans deal with their dead.  They collect them and dress them and display them and transport them and dig the holes to deposit them in, and then continue to celebrate their life and influence and accomplishments long after the bodies have been placed in those graves.  They spend a goodly amount of time looking back, remembering, leafing through old albums, telling stories.  I guess it is a bit of a misnomer to call them “departed”, actually, as they seem to be hanging out in the penumbra of their family’s lives for decades past their expiration dates.

Recently, I spent a good couple of hours with the 86-year-old host-grandmother of one of my Peace Corps friends.  The second time she hobbled out with an old shoebox full of photos, I gracefully acquiesced and settled in for the ride.  We covered the story behind every frayed and yellowing picture, even those so faded I couldn’t make out a face.  When there were duplicates – and there were many – she remembered another aspect of the personality of the person/s portrayed to relate to me.  (Since most of her teeth were missing and she spoke a heavily-accented Moldovanești, I was only catching every third word anyway.  She might have been telling the same story over and over again.)

Lest you attribute this persistence to the age and senility of my raconteur, let me assure you that I have been the recipient of such serial tales from the mouths of much younger, spryer folk: Nina, my host sister in Stauceni, celebrated the year anniversary of her husband’s passing my first summer in Moldova (and it was a celebration; let me say that outside of Terms of Endearment’s Aurora Greenway and my own 93-year-old grandmother, I’ve never known a happier widow in my entire life.)  I was held sway for an entire evening by the story of their meeting, marriage, his war-record and drinking buddies, their children’s nativities, his long, slow decline from stomach cancer, and the details of his expiration, complete with photos and souvenir medals.  There may have been some house wine involved, too.  And this served up by a woman who didn’t much like her husband at all.

Once I was stopped in the training room by one of the social assistants here. She was weeping prodigiously and cradling the framed photograph of a handsome middle-aged man. She’s Ukrainian, so her Romanian is just barely better than mine, but I managed to parse out from the picture and towel-wrapped loaf of bread she pressed into my hands that this was the son whose car had been hit by a train five years ago.  (She missed him so much that she observed his anniversary every year, rather than keeping to the requisite one and seven.)  Despite the fact that I couldn’t understand most of what she said, she didn’t stint on his story.  It was very important that I appreciate what an amazing son, brother, and father he had been.  Her pain was so palpable that the tears were soon coursing down my face, too, and we ended the whole thing dissolved in each other’s embrace.

***

When my sister was killed in a head-on collision almost 30 years ago, a family friend identified her body at the morgue. Neither of my parents wanted to etch their memories with a stark, blue-lit close-up of her smashed-in skull or deflated ribcage.  We held a memorial service at some generic, non-sectarian chapel, where we placed a framed picture on an easel front and center depicting her mid-laugh, eyes bright, hair a spun-gold halo, turning toward the camera, alive, rather than a dead body.  Her friends took dutiful turns at the lectern at the front of the room, clutching sodden pieces of notebook paper and swabbing their faces with tissues. I don’t remember any member of our family talking; I think we were too stunned at that point, trying to assimilate the meaning of the sudden hole in our ranks. There was no body present; she was cremated and for some reason the remains were not ready in time for the event (how long does it take to burn a body? Is there a line? I picture a traffic jam of caskets, jostling for a lane…)

Later, I went with my dad to the crematorium to fetch her “ashes.”  I put that in quotes because it is a nice little linguistic notion we have about a  body that’s been burned – that all that remains is a neat, fluffy white pile of ashes. Not so.  Because, of course, cradling the box on my lap through the car ride home, I couldn’t stop myself.  I needed some notion of termination to take hold in me, a finale, in order to stop expecting her to pop around the corner and kid us about her creative April Fool’s gag. So, I opened it up.  Carefully wrapped inside a sanitizing layer of plastic, I found chunks of concrete, similar to what you might have after going at a sidewalk with a sledgehammer. With teeny bits of irregular turquoise and deep garnet pebbles mixed in.   And some silver (I surmised those were her fillings.)   I sifted it through my fingers, thinking, This is you. This is all that’s left of you, Lorraine. Chunks of bones and tiny gem-like pebbles.  It didn’t compute.  I couldn’t make the transition between the articulated limbs, the smell and feel of her, that cloud of hair and puffy upper lip, the dim constellation of pale freckles across her nose and cheeks, her perfectly arched nails and knobby knees, with this box of crumbled cement between my thighs.  If you don’t witness the burning, it’s hard to believe it really happened.

(Ironically, several years later our family benefited from a lawsuit filed against that crematorium. They were discovered to have indiscriminately mixed people’s remains during their processing, so the bones I was sifting through were not likely all, or even mostly, my sister’s.)

A couple of weeks after this, a group of us drove down to Laguna Beach with the box.  I vaguely remember my current boyfriend and the man who had identified her body squabbling about who was going to scatter the contents (in the end, I think they divided it up.)  I and my parents, brothers, assorted girlfriends and family friends watched from the cliffs above as they both paddled out on boogie boards, dodging surfers and swimmers, then stopped beyond the wave break, and proceeded to wave exuberantly.  We all waved back until one of my brothers pointed out that they weren’t actually waving, they were busy tossing Lorraine across the water.  No one said anything after that.  The wind was loud and there was a table of people enjoying Caeser salads and a bottle of chardonnay not three feet away.  It turns out that scattering dead people’s remains right off shore in California is not really legal.  No sense in drawing undue attention.

***

Most years I don’t recall my sister’s expiration date until some days or weeks after it’s passed.  I’m always gratified those years that I do remember, I don’t know why. I make a point of composing a little letter to her in my head, updating her on what’s been happening with me, how her neice is doing, the latest family travails.  For some reason I don’t feel right doing this if I’ve forgotten on the actual day of her death – like I’ve missed her birthday party or to attend her wedding or something. Since she was cremated, there exists no dedicated place to visit, to bring flowers or to say a prayer.  My mother and I have talked – at the 20 and 25 year anniversaries, I remember – of getting her friends together, looking up her old boyfriend, having a party. We still have yet to make that happen.

She is slipping silently away, becoming more ephemeral each passing year as I age and my ability to recall details fades.  She died before the age of cell phones and camcorders; there is no recording of her voice.   All of our videos are old school, silent and grainy like my memories, and the world they portray seems alien, with longer shadows and a clausterphobic feel. I wrote recently of losing a piece of her clothing that I had carted around with me for decades.  I liked having that shawl as it gave me a tangible connection to her – something that touched her could touch me still.  I fantasized that little flecks of her skin were still caught up in the threads.  (This might actually be kind of gross if I hadn’t broken down and washed it years ago.)

I know that my family did the best we could, given our circumstance and the cultural medium we were steeped in, at the time of my sister’s passing.  But I am aware of the movement growing within the States to bring the dead home, to wrest back responsibility for the passage of the corpse to its final resting place, be that fire or grave.  I have a friend who kept her husband’s body at home in the bed where he died for the three days that his Buddhist faith proscribed before calling the authorities to collect him.  It was a defiant act in a world chock full of rules and regulations around what should be, could be a far more intimate event.

I think the Moldovans have done well in blending progress with tradition in many areas. I fervently hope that I never see a funeral home built in this country.  I admire them for their resilience and stoicism melded with an authentic propensity for feeling their emotions, year after year after year.  The dead are not departed; they remain deeply embedded in the lives of those who remain.

***

It has been the ubiquity of social media, ironically, that has returned bits of Lorraine to me.  Her closest friends have friended me, and they still post pictures and anecdotes about her, stuff I’ve never seen or heard, that serve to refresh her presence and allow her to again have an influence upon my day.  I cry often. And laugh and smile and find myself caught up in an unexpected memory, a clear picture of how she was in a certain instance, on a certain day, and I fancy I can almost hear her voice whispering on the breeze.

That image sticks in my brain, I don’t know why: the busload of me and 19 Moldovans, inching by the wagon carrying the corpse with the bright-red mouth, framed in roses, trailed by a parade festooned with candles and balloons.  Everyone pausing, looking out the window, heads turning slowly.  Hands slowly tracing crosses from forehead, to shoulders, to heart.  Then the van speeding up and all heads bowing down, again, to little screens cradled on laps in front of them.

 

On Marriage

You were born together, and together you shall be forevermore. 
      You shall be together when white wings of death scatter your days. 
      Aye, you shall be together even in the silent memory of God. 
      But let there be spaces in your togetherness, 
      and let the winds of the heavens dance between you. 
      Love one another but make not a bond of love: 
      Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls. 
      Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup. 
      Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf. 
      Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone, 
      Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music. 
      Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping. 
      For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts. 
      And stand together, yet not too near together: 
      For the pillars of the temple stand apart, 
      And the oaktreeand the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow. 

-  Kahlil Gibran “On Marriage”

 

I came of age in the 1970’s, a point in time when the pithy wisdoms contained in Gibran’s little book The Prophet tripped off every hippy-gypsy’s lips.  I am sure I attended more than one wedding which highlighted this verse prominently within the invitation or featured it somewhere in the vows. Blue Mountain Cards appropriated and soon exhausted its sentiment (along with those on friendship, love, children, pain, and death, ad nausea.)  Everyone I knew I had a self-annotated, coffee-stained, broken-spined copy lying about somewhere in the house.  And I think most of us consigned them to the used book bin at the library sometime during the late 80s or early 90s, fearing that it branded one a literati imposter to even the most casual observer of one’s bookshelves (and we all know we make those judgments, don’t we?)

It’s a shame, as I doubt that many of us who were so enamored then by Gibran’s aphoristic prose truly had lived long enough to understand its rutted truths, ground out from endless repetition and the weight of heavy loads.   Very few of us had married, borne children, experienced pain, grieved death.  We thought we loved.  We didn’t know the half of it.  I don’t believe that many of us had been threshed naked, sifted free of husks, ground to whiteness, or kneaded into pliancy, as Gibran describes it, by age 17 or 23.

Coming across this verse by accident today, I read it over again with a deep and resonating pleasure. And I it made me realize that I have wanted for some time to address all the unspoken questions, speculations, and (sometimes) judgments I feel vibrating in my wake when people learn that I am married yet serving in Peace Corps without my spouse.  I watch their eyes widen, their brows twitch, their mouths open and close as they quickly formulate an innocuous response to a non-traditional notion of marriage that appears to include living 6,000 miles apart.  For twenty-seven months.  And now add another twelve on top of that…let’s just admit that the winds of heaven have been enjoying quite the prolonged waltz between M and me.

 ***

 For a long, long time, over 20 years in fact, M and I devoted concerted effort to cocooning ourselves within a comfort zone. We went to our jobs every day, which for a number of years were close enough to allow us to drive to work and/or have lunch together once or twice a week.  We cleaned our house in tandem on the weekends.  We ate dinner out often, went to movies, shopped at Costco, and walked the dogs. Together.  We lived in a nice condo in a beautiful city with thousands of acres of hiking and biking trails surrounding us. The Pacific Ocean was a fifteen minute drive away.   We made decent salaries and were able to save towards retirement. Like bunnies in a self-imposed hutch, we were warm, fed, plump, and circumscribed.  And over time the cramp set in.

I can’t put my finger on it, even now, but I surmise – for me – it was the absolute predictability of it, day after day, year after year.  I caught myself entertaining thoughts of a calamity, a catastrophic earthquake or tsunami that might come along and wipe our slate clean, forcing us to feel the wind again, to stretch our muscles and reach for something we couldn’t just buy. We had been huddled down and comfortable for so long, eating the same bread, drinking from the same cup, there was very little space in our togetherness.   Now, rabbits can live this way, and rats and hamsters and, I imagine, some people, too.  But it seemed, to me at least, that we were standing on each other’s shadows, breathing a stale and listless air, jammed too close to sing and dance or even quiver with the music.  Year by year we grew more peevish with each other, prone to magnifying perceived slights and reading our books in different rooms.

Recently, I read an interview with Esther Perel, therapist and author of the book Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence; her 2013 TED talk on the subject has received over 4.5 million hits.  She brings what I consider a novel approach to questions of marital discontent, strife, and infidelity: why do we imagine that our spouse can (or even should) be the only person to fulfill our every need for challenge, surprise, delight, wonder, curiosity, and amazement in our lives?  While simultaneously serving as a grounding anchor, a reliable lighthouse beacon, a calm berth from storm-tossed seas, and a fire extinguisher if called upon.  We expect so much from marriage these days, demanding nothing less than a ‘soul mate’ who will be the yin to our yang and soothe that ache we construe to be the severed chord that joined us before birth.  We tell ourselves that there is someone out there who will finally “get” me, solve me, make me feel complete.

Only it doesn’t happen that way.  And sometimes, many times in fact, when we’re feeling incomplete, misunderstood, kicked about by life, or maybe just plain bored to tears and that same ache – the one that was supposedly relieved by your soul mate – is back yawning and throbbing with an ever-increasing intensity, you find a most rational argument for turning round and blaming said soul mate for being such an awful hutch mate.  Because if they weren’t so inconsiderate/ornery/stubborn/selfish/stupid/ insensitive/lazy/driven/blind/boring/batshit crazy (circle one or, better yet, several) then my life wouldn’t be so miserable right now, would it?  Perhaps he or she is not ‘the one’, after all? Maybe there’s someone else out there waiting for me?

And it is exactly this type of rationale, Perel says, that can prove fatal to a marriage.  Because maybe it isn’t him or her at all that’s the problem. Maybe you were expecting the unrealizable from marriage. Maybe there is no one out there who can fill the hole.  Maybe it’s your own damn hole to fill.

***

 Within a space of two months both M and I lost our jobs.  I had been with mine for twenty years. He was let go four days before Christmas.   This was 2010, when the economy was still flat on its back, barely twitching, giving no signs of recovery. Here was our tsunami, in some ways subtler but with a longer, more penetrating thrust.  For many months we were like fossils pushing through a life that was gradually stiffening into amber.  In the beginning it was novel, fun even, as if we were vacationing on Groundhog Day; work existed out there somewhere, tomorrow, but tomorrow never showed up.  As if by rote, we still shopped at Costco, ate dinner out, and walked the dogs, only now twice or three times a day because we could.  Eventually, we did stop cleaning the house, as weekends were no different than any other day and really we just stopped caring.  After a number of months, it dawned on us that eating out was expensive; we began eating alone, behind closed doors, in front of screens.  Our diurnal clocks gradually diverged; we would pass in the hallway at 5:00am, me, headed to the kitchen for coffee, M back to the bedroom for sleep. Our computers were in separate rooms and one day I realized we were sending each other emails rather than walking 20 feet to talk.  It was as if we had both suffered the same paralyzing accident and each of us was waiting desultorily for the other, in some unacknowledged manner, to salvage things. In marriage, sometimes the lines between love and dependency can become indistinguishable.

Until one day, scrolling through online jobsites, my pointer strayed onto an advertisement for Peace Corps.  Well that’s a blast from the past. I stared.  Peace Corps is still around? Impulsively, I clicked.  And suddenly the murky film that had been occluding my head for months was gone. Here it was, my life preserver, the raft that would carry me across the threshold I’d been stuck on for a decade. As I explored country options, volunteer living conditions, and program assignments, I felt an excitement that had been absent from my life for years and years come thundering back, returning to center stage.   Here was what I wanted – nay, needed to do for me. I finally admitted to myself something I had been deliberately avoiding.  I didn’t want to salvage my old life.  I did not want to do any of it, anymore, at all.  I hadn’t for a number of years.  And it had nothing to do with M, the person who he was, the way we interacted or his treatment of me. He just happened to be the current participant in a life I no longer wished to lead.    Now, a distant horizon beckoned me.  Accompanied or alone, I was joining Peace Corps.

***

 As it turned out, it was alone.  Was it fair of me – to announce my plan and expect that it would be his solution, too? No, just as it was not fair to expect his solution to satisfy me.  We had both come to a crossroad in our respective lives, lives that had been moving in parallel fashion for so long that we sort of forgot we were distinct people with separate feet that could tread different paths.  It wasn’t easy on either of us to take the necessary steps to seal the deal – sell the condo, shed two decades of stuff, say goodbye to a lifestyle that so many others were striving to attain.  I just kept putting one foot in front of the other, dead certain that this was the road I was supposed to be taking.  And on June 3, 2012, we hugged goodbye. He drove away and I trundled the two suitcases that represented all my material belongings into LAX.

Recently, M and I spent a number of months together.  And I reveled in both the familiarity and the novelty of his presence.  He is my husband, my partner of 20-odd years. He looked the same and talked the same and exhibited the same quick wit and formidable intelligence.  Yet there are things about him that were different.  He has taken up cooking and is trying different foods (gone, the cheese-on-a-disk that was his go-to meal for decades.) He has backed away from political websites and rants and embraced the idiosyncratic philosophy of Hondo. Then moved across the country and found a new job in a completely different environment. Now he sends me self-composed haikus and calls me several times a weeks He is lighter, more joyful and positive, less prone to taking umbrage at the stupid things I say.  (In fact, we recently discovered that his elf name is Happy Sparkle-pants.)

As for me, I count myself doubly blessed. I’ve seen a person – myself – emerge from a stifling cocoon of business suits and office politics and monthly bills and cookie-cutter days to re-inhabit the long skirts and funky jewelry and idealistic dreams and life without money that I thought were gone with my 20s.  I’m fulfilling a long-cherished fantasy to live and work in a foreign country.  I am seeing myself reflected in new people’s eyes, people whom I admire, and whose friendship I am grateful to have gained.  I have accomplished things of which I’m proud.  I no longer dream of earthquakes.  Life’s horizons stretch out before me.  The cage door has been flung open and I am definitely dancing and quivering to the music.

And when all is said and done I know I’ve still got that  oak tree growing right alongside me, and together, standing separately, we’re holding up the temple of our beautiful, sustainable marriage.  Now, I know that I have loved.

 

Imagine

A young child asks his mother to imagine that she is completely surrounded by tigers , with no weapon available, and nowhere to hide. What would she do?  The mother hesitates, ponders the question, and replies that she has no idea what she would do. The mother then asks the child what he would do, and he replies, “I would stop imagining.”

Tiger roar

I came across this enigmatic little tale in a book I am reading: “Stepping Out of Self- Deception: the Buddha’s Liberating Teaching of No-self” by Rodney Smith.  My mind keeps returning to its deceptive simplicity  –  how much of our fears, anxieties, worries, and dreads are born of our own imagination?   And what  is the imagination, when you get down to it?  Neurobiology creating worlds out of electrical impulses…including the very real impression that there is a ‘self’ capable of inputting,  managing, and analyzing the data.

I am also reading Diane Keaton’s memoir Then Again in which she traces the deterioration of both her parent’s mental capacities and abilities to maintain a ‘self’ – her father’s as a result of a brain tumor and her mother’s due to Alzheimer’s.  (When books I am reading cross-pollinate it always causes me to pay special attention.)  In both cases, their respective imaginations began to rule their experience and caused them (and all their loved ones) undue anguish.  Their “selves” were no longer at the wheel.  But then where does that self go? Who is driving?  What is experiencing the anguish? I tend to think of a mental illness as some sort of discreet demon – an evil imposter that wrenches control away from the proper owner of the brain/body.  As if the sane person was locked up in a cage in a corner of the mind, rattling the bars, screaming to get loose.  But that could really only be the case if we want to put our faith in some sort of entity akin to a soul.  Because increasingly, neuroscientists are affirming many of the basic tenets of Buddhism: the “self” we wear so deeply, clutch so strongly – that, in fact, is the essential definition of who/what “we’ are in this world –  is impossible to parse out from the machinations of the brain.

Meditators with years and years of experience tell us that they experience a consciousness unrelated to a sense of self; a deep, impersonal awareness that absorbs and dissipates the ego.  Does this awareness remain present, I wonder, lurking above it all when a person’s imagination runs haywire? Or take the comatose person lying in a bed for decades with no apparent signs of brain activity other than those maintaining the body – is this pure awareness present without the mitigating factor of imagination or self?

What happens when there is no “i” to stop imagining or to imagine at all?  I can’t imagine it….can you?

Loving the one you’re with

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Zoe, my erstwhile canine companion, died today.  My husband called at 2:30am (my time) to tell me.  I know he woke me up because it’s hard to be alone with the blank space of loss.  The world has changed in some immeasurable, ineffable way. A little cameo has been erased and yet the tableau of life remains largely the same, unaffected.  Needless to say, it’s now 7:30am and I have not gone back to sleep.

I use the possessive adjective “my” with Zoe very loosely.  First, because I have always been a tad uncomfortable subscribing to the notion of owning any living being.  Sure, I had responsibility for feeding, sheltering, and caring for Zoe – but the same was true of my daughter and I couldn’t pretend to own her (not even when she was two!) But mostly it doesn’t feel right using ‘my’ with Zoe because she was not a dog that ceded to a relationship of that sort.  My husband and I used to joke that Zoe might have thought she was a cat since she was raised with them in the absence of other dogs for the first two years of her life.  Her temperament was certainly more feline than canine.  She never saw the point of chasing balls or sticks.  She liked to sit, paws tucked beneath her, on the back of the couch in front of our big picture window in Irvine, watching the world go buy.  She did not tolerate being picked up or held with much grace, but she would stretch beside you on her own terms to nap.  She was definitely not a lap dog and thank god she didn’t yap.

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One hears, with a trickle of tears usually, tales of dogs that have lost their owners traveling hundreds – sometimes thousands – of miles searching for them, prostrating themselves on a grave, showing up at 5 each day to meet a train, curling up with a coat or scarf, refusing to eat, or move, or play again. Wow! What loyalty and unconditional love, we think.   What a wonderful companion.  How lucky that person was to have that animal’s unwavering affection!  Well, that wasn’t Zoe.  Loyalty was not an integral aspect of her character.

Throughout the entire eighteen months prior to my leaving for the Peace Corps, Zoe and I were together twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.  I wasn’t working.  My only form of recreation was walking, which I did, day in and day out, sometimes six or seven miles a day, Zoe by my side.  We took a four month road trip during that time, visiting twenty-three states, camping the entire way.  She went places most suburban dogs will never have the opportunity to visit.  She was a finicky eater and I spent many hours (and way too much money) searching for the perfect dog food to entice her.  She accompanied me in the car whenever I ran errands (much to the chagrin of Irvine Animal Control – but we won’t go there.) When I said goodbye to her in June of 2012, she didn’t acknowledge in any way my impending disappearance from her world.  As I cried, she cocked her head and looked at me quizzically (while I’m thinking “NOTE THE SUITCASES, DUMB DOG!!!!  This is it – you’re supposed to KNOW AND BE SAD!)  My husband reported that she actually began eating better in my absence.

When I returned for a visit home in May 2013, my daughter had her iPhone cocked, finger on the trigger, ready to record the Yvette & Treeemotional reunion. (We had watched too many YouTube videos of Iraqi veterans on kitchen floors under a dog pile.) I crept up to the front door, then opened it quickly, arms outspread, ready for Zoe to leap up in joy.  She gazed up at me myopically, sniffed my feet and trotted right past, to greet my husband with middling enthusiasm, instead.  I guess that sealed the deal: Zoe did not ‘belong’ to me. Though neither did she belong to him, it turned out.

When Mike moved back to Kentucky a couple of months ago, he was not able to keep Zoe at his brother’s house where he was staying.  So his sister Kim offered to take her until Mike could find a place of his own.  She had a beagle-mix who was hungering for a companion and Jackson and Zoe soon became inseparable.  And whenever Mike would come by for a visit, sure enough, it was Kim who held her attention. Mike had become just another humanoid temporarily inhabiting a peripheral space.  Zoe always knew who buttered her bread.  You could say she was an eminently practical beast. Or, perhaps, just a little bit more enlightened than most of us creatures.

I’ve been immersing myself in studies of Buddhist philosophy again, this time approaching it from a novel angle through a MOOC on Buddhism & Evolutionary Psychology. Turns out these two disciplines have a host of similarities in explaining the mechanisms which form our sense of self, including the notions of attraction and preferences that usually predicate feelings of love and the way that our neurobiology is set up to negate the reality of impermanence.

Zoe and friend

Although it is enormously gratifying to our ego (our sense of self) to have a dog slavishly adore us, is it really the best strategy for the dog? Or us? Of course, we pride ourselves in the self-aggrandizing notion that their doggy brains (and hearts?) have overcome thousands of years of evolution to devote themselves single-mindedly to one human being out of billions, but when the consequences of that sort of devotion are an unremitting anguish and perhaps starving itself to death, one becomes a little mortified at the exacting toll our own sense of self-importance sometimes expects.  (We tend to do the same thing with our romantic partners and BFF’s too, but at least they have the capacity to find food and shelter on their own.)

One of the ever-present catch-22s of Peace Corps service in this day and age is the ubiquitous of home and everyone else’s events and activities plastered all over social media.  It can be very debilitating for some of us to witness life going on blithely in our absence, like a GOT character being killed off in the middle of the third season. No one much cares. Life goes on. You really weren’t that crucial to the plot after all.

J Strom Thurmond Rec AreaZoe’s graceful detachment always brought to my mind that Stephen Stills song Love the one you’re with.  Don’t sit crying over good times you’ve had.  Face forward and be here now.  Make more good.   It was actually a very freeing experience for me to learn that Zoe was not moping around missing me.  On some basic level, I felt released to move on.  I appreciated her companionship while we were together and I felt it was reciprocated.  But, as I have learned only too well in my two years away from home, it is not healthy to predicate one’s happiness on the presence or proximity of something external.  You take nothing with you.  So look around you and find the good times where you’re at.

 

 

I know you’re loving the one you’re with Zoe.  Good for you girl.  Run in peace….

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The Ticking of Here and Now

There is a clock that lives in my apartment, one of the generic, analog, moon-faced varieties that probably hung above the doorway of your second-grade classroom. This one ticks audibly, loudly. When my friend Nic spends the night I invariably find it on the counter in the morning, battery removed; the metronomic thudding makes it impossible for her to sleep.

In a sense, it does me, too. Though it’s rhythmic pulsing fades from my consciousness at night and any insomnia I occasionally experience is not related to its noise, I am very conscious of it during the daytime hours. At least ten times a day I find myself tuning in to its beat, all thought leaving as my mind traces an on/off pattern, now it’s here, now it’s gone – tick, tick, tick, tick, moments passing by – the space between the ticks as full and round as the sound of the tick itself. It is a constant, unflagging reminder of what Peace Corps has given me: a veritable abundance of sweet and spacious, uncluttered and uncomplicated time.

The sense of having time is subtle. What does it mean to “have time?” It’s not as if it’s a possession, something I am keeping on a shelf or in a pocket. And there are no more minutes or hours in a day here than comprised the days of my former life. So why do I feel such an unbridled sense of its openness and potential, here and now? Like the clopping of an unhurried horse’s hooves down a tree-shaded country lane, the rhythm of my days is slow and steady, unrestricted, melodic, yet there is still a sense of movement, as if being carried away by a piece of music. One isn’t goal-directed, waiting impatiently for the notes to progress in order to reach an end but, instead, relaxes into a skein of connected points that expands and sways, movement becoming space, time becoming a place to inhabit rather than pass.

I have thought about this question persistently over the past year (I just marked my year-long anniversary of living in Strașeni.) I have been, and continue to be, so happy here without any of the usual suspects to thank. My husband, daughter, parents, siblings and life-long friends are thousands of miles away. I am not making money, nor am I squirreling any away. I don’t have an important position with a serious title and a well-appointed office. I don’t have a car or even a bicycle. No dishwasher or dryer or big screen TV or juicer (oh, how I loved my juicer!) or access to world-class cuisine or Target or multiplex theaters or hiking trails or beach, all of the afore-mentioned representing, of course, basic accoutrements of the past three decades of my life. My world consists, primarily, of three rooms and a community of Moldovan elderly outside my door. Sometimes I don’t leave the center for days at a time. There are weekends when the only person I see is the cook in the shelter kitchen when I go to get my water. I have gone 48 hours without speaking a word. More than once.

So why? Why am I happy? This is an important question to contemplate, obviously, as the notion of `the pursuit of happiness’ is something wired into every American’s DNA, it seems. (No other culture I’ve experienced appears to feel quite so entitled to its attainment and persistant presence as us, but that’s another story altogether.) So, after ruminating on it for the past year through all this spacious time I’ve been afforded, here are some key elements that I have identifed at its source:

Predictable Change

How’s that for oxymoronic? And yet it’s the best way to describe the flow of my experience in Moldova. While there are aspects of my life that have become routine and stable – my presence here at the center amidst its bustling activities, the relationships that bind me to the group of PCVs whom I arrived here with in June 2012, the rutiera drivers who whisk me down the familiar highway to Chișinău once or twice a week, the burgeoning grocery store in town (that now carries peanut butter and lentils!) – I know that the commitments, people, projects, and events that populate my calendar will shift, grow, wane, blossom, fade and most definitely change from month to month. One week I might find myself writing a grant request for a civic engagement project and the next I am looking for funding for a traditional embroidery class. In the morning I may meet with a woman building a professional development organization for youth and two hours later I am in the adjunct director’s office at USAID seeking support for a United Way chapter in Moldova. I am invited to an International Women’s Club mentoring meeting at the English ambassor’s residence, a board meeting at Neoumanist, and a poetry reading at the Pushkin museum, all in the same day.

For twenty years I worked for one organization, day in and day out. The only significant difference in my weekly schedule happened when I was promoted into a new position every 4-5 years. But even then, the mission was unvaried, my colleagues remained largely the same, and the route I drove to work changed only once, when our offices moved to the next town over. Almost every moment of every week was routinized; I could practically sleepwalk through the days and for many years I’m afraid that’s exactly what I did.

In Peace Corps, conversely, I’ve had the opportunity to work with folks trying to start an eco-community, complete with training center, workshops, and housing; along with two other volunteers, I planned and executed a 20th anniversary commemorative event for Peace Corps Moldova: a two week long walk across the country in which PCVs, Moldovan youth, Peace Corps staff, media, and the American Ambassador and his wife participated; I have helped a hundred or more Moldovans attain or improve English speaking ability; I have entertained service volunteers from Holland and Austria who have come to help at my center; I have helped to facilitate a giant Winter Bazaar where thousands of people from across Moldova get a cross-cultural experience of food and displays from a variety of countries. I have attended wine and music festivals, parades, christenings, agricultural expositions, craft fairs, birthday parties, forest picnics, climbed waterfalls, hiked alongside flower-filled fields, toured ancient monasteries, and relaxed in a multitude of saunas – all as part of my `work’ here in Moldova. I have learned to speak Romanian, build a Joomla website, fashion adobe structures, and make fantastic borsch. And I have still had the time and opportunity to travel to Turkey, Morocco, Ukraine, Romania, England, Scotland, Austria, Germany, Hungary, Slovakia, and Italy, to boot. If you would have told me five years ago that these types of experiences would be filling my monthly calendar one day, I wouldn’t have had a clue how to make them happen nor where I would have found the time. This life is anything but monotonous. And it affords me plenty of leisure hours to fill with what I will.

The 48-hour window

I once called a Moldovan woman on a Friday morning to set up a meeting for the following Monday. She expressed dismay, but as I began to apologize, explaining that I just located her number, she cut me off. “How could I possible schedule a meeting that far in advance? I have no idea what I’ll be doing Monday!” One of my friends living in a small village got an urgent call at 8pm the other night. It was her former host mom, imploring her to come over immediately – “Get your shoes on, don’t even stop to comb your hair!” Mumbling and grumbling she arrived at the house to find her host father’s birthday celebration in full swing. When I lived with Nina in Hîncești it was not unusual to be rousted from my bedroom on a Wednesday evening to join five Avon representatives in her kitchen for a formal recognition ceremony, replete with cognac and sarmale. Seriously, this is how the majority of Moldovans run their lives. It seems to violate some unspoken cultural principle to plan anything more than an hour in advance. Invitations to major events are issued a mere 48 hours prior to their occurrence. Apparently the general predilection for avoiding any type of scheduled commitments guarantees that people’s calendars will be free.

While the downsides of this erratic approach to the future are obvious and challenging, I have come to appreciate, finally, the degree of spontaneity and clarity it brings to my day-to-day life. I remember looking at my calendar sometimes back home and feeling weighed down by the merry-go-round of meetings and repetitive appointments that cluttered its pages. Before I had even lived through the hours they had become burdensome to me, heavy in their sameness and predictability, regimented blocks of blacked out time that precluded any possibility of impulsivity or escape. It seemed sometimes like heavy blinds had been drawn across my week, occluding my view of anything but work. By the time I got home in the evening all that seemed remotely possible was a movie or a book and a glass (or two) of wine.

Now, my life is lived mostly within a 48 hour window. Rarely do I know for sure what I might be doing tomorrow, much less next week. (If I do, the event tends to loom like a forbidding monster, daring me to ignore it.) Being a person without appointments can make one giddy, especially if you notice and appreciate their absence. I feel lighter, freer, more apt to stay up late on a Thursday night watching a documentary, or ride into Chișinău on a Monday afternoon to buy walnuts at the piața, or travel to a friend’s house for cinema night on a Friday evening. I have lots and lots of wiggle room, despite the myriad projects I’m engaged in. And I know that any day, anything can happen. Suddenly. Spontaneously. Like it or not.

The Absence of Advertising

Surprisingly, this is perhaps the most important ingredient, deep down, of my happiness. Back in the States, I would not have counted myself as a person susceptible to or overly affected by advertising. After all, I did not watch TV (my media viewing consisted of Netflix movies or consuming an entire boxed TV series in one two-week marathon.) My print intake was comprised primarily of ad-free (The Sun) or ad-responsible (The Nation) magazines after the New York Times became exorbitantly expensive. I lived in a city that prohibited billboard advertising. Having been largely removed from its pernicious, pervasive presence for the past 20 months, however, I have gained a new appreciation for how insidiously it inveigles its way into our lives, infecting us with a viral dissatisfaction, an itchy restlessness one can never quite reach or isolate, a subtle simmering of our brain cells urging us to hurry up and buy something, go somewhere, eat something, do something, consume, consume, consume – experiences, foods, events, locations, people. There is always something better, faster, smarter, cooler, tastier, more absorbing or fun or rewarding or relaxing or enlightening or brilliant happening somewhere else, over the rainbow.

Now I realize that a seemingly innocuous errand to buy some dog food or replace a tube of mascara, a trip to the dry cleaners or the dentist, a drive down the freeway or lunch in a chain restaurant would subject me to subtle – and not so subtle – inflammations of desire, a low-level yammering of advertisements and enticements that are so integrated into our existence we think we don’t notice them anymore. But now, I remember my eyes wandering up to the HD television screen in our neighborhood Islands or Chili’s, fixating on all the beautiful people riding waves or skiing slopes or sailing seas or jumping impossibly high with balls. I recall being mesmerized by the shiny boxes, sleek bottles, cunning compacts and cellophane wrappers in drugstores, each item promising to lift or erase or smooth or somehow improve me. Or standing in the checkout line, eyeing the alluring rack of lamb garnished with a sprig of mint and a tempting glaze or the newest celebrity d’jour touting the benefits of homeopathic remedies or Bikram yoga, beckoning to me from the adjacent magazine covers. There were those brilliant white teeth of the playful youths tumbling over each other, laughing, mouths framed by perfect skin and abundant manes, that graced a poster on the wall of my dental hygienist’s office. (Smile Bright makes everything Right.) The lush beach, fringed in palms and blanketed in blue sky, flashing by on the side of a passing bus, promising a different, warmer, brighter sun would shine upon me in Cancun. Even my box of granola would tell a story, of an idealistic farmer, a family plot, and a lofty vision, fields of grain undulating out to the horizon. I really was surrounded, day in and day out, with messages that shaped, altered, and shifted the accepted motivators in my world.

Advertising has yet to catch hold, become sophisticated or hypnotic here. While packaged food is increasingly more prevalent, it comes in pretty generic containers sans fancy claims or mythic properties. The faded ad for a beach holiday in the Crimea stuffed into the plastic holders on the backs of the headrests in my local rutiera hasn’t changed since I moved to Strașeni (come on guys, no one’s going to be vacationing there these days…) The young lady adorned in a taffeta evening gown plastered to the side of the small dress boutique downtown looks like someone who went to my high school (and I know I saw that same dress at my senior prom.) The local news anchors lean against each other awkwardly on a peeling billboard: his haircut is ragged and his teeth are gray, her jacket strains to covers the muffin top around her waist. And any commercials played in my vicinity are either in Russian or a rapid-fire Romanian that exceeds any capacity I have or want to comprehend.

I never appreciated how incomplete I was being made to feel by the barrage of images and messages constantly pressing at the edges of my awareness. Not until I had lived here for some time did I notice the absence of a certain nervous energy, the abatement of a small but nagging sense of inadequacy reminding me constantly that there was always something more that my lifestyle was inexplicably missing. Was it a dress? A car? A vacation? A concert, or a sporting event, or play? Maybe a new cookbook or a sharper set of knives…a balance ball…or a tapestry for the wall?

Other than food, here is the list of items I’ve purchased while living in Moldova: two pair of cotton socks, a set of sheets, a carrot grater and some headphones.  Yet I feel richer, calmer, happier and more confident than any time since  I was six years old.

So what does this absence of advertising have to do with time, you ask? Well, it helps me tremendously to be present exactly where I’m at, possessed of an adequate supply of material goods to fulfill my basic needs and not much more to mind. Cleaning my whole apartment takes about an hour and a half. I do one load of laundry a week. When I shop, I buy only that which I can carry the half mile down the dirt road back to my house. There is a dearth of entertainment to be had in my neck of the woods. Strașeni has one restaurant; it serves unremarkable pizza. I know some of you reading this are shuddering, wondering if I’ve capsized and sank below the surface of 21st century life. But, really, I haven’t. I have a computer and 20 G of data a month, which gives me access to an endless supply of books and movies and music and news and yoga videos and online classes and recipes, all without commercials.

But that vague restlessness is gone. I have found myself pleased to gaze out the window at the birds in the trees for up to ten minutes at a time. Or listen to a guided meditation whenever the whim arises. Or spend an entire afternoon composing a blog post about all the time I find to myself these days.

***

It is almost a cliché to say that one receives much more than one gives through Peace Corps service. I am no different. The gratitude I experience everyday for this experience sometimes overwhelms me. I feel like I’ve won a lottery that few people in the world even know about or bother to enter.  Increasingly, I see unstructured, goalless time as a humane and necessary antidote to the jet-propelled, anxiety laced lives most Americans have become accustomed to.  (I have been mentally composing a piece on Basic Guaranteed Income for months now. While I firmly believe that it’s an idea whose time has come, I still haven’t found the correct tone or manner of presentation that wouldn’t make my entire family and friend network believe that I’ve succumbed to socialist propaganda.)  Every morning upon surfacing back to consciousness, I say a fervent thank you to the universe for blessing me with this time. And the ever-present ticking of that clock, like the sound of one hand clapping, amplifies the echoing of spaciousness between the seconds and reminds me that I am always here, and it is forever now.

 

To Save or Not to Save – or Animals aRen’t us

Gus Kenworthy might have received more media coverage for taking home a family of stray dogs than an Olympic silver medal last month.  We Americans do dote on our pets, and the images of stray dogs roaming the streets of Sochi may have been the first many of us who have not traveled to developing countries have ever encountered.  In yet another instance of ‘behind-the-scenes’ services, local governments in the US allocate taxes and levy fees in order to manage their community’s resident animals, both domestic and wild.  One would be hard pressed to find any populated burgs in the United States harboring packs of stray dogs like those that captured the hearts of the Olympic athletes in Sochi.  Or those that snag onto Peace Corps Volunteers’ the world over.

When I first came to Moldova, the stray dogs were one of the very first things to capture my attention; endlessly fascinating and enduringly entertaining, they continue to hold it to this day.   It is so jarring, watching a dog trot determinedly along, unleashed, eyes focused ahead, undeterred by other dogs or cats perched atop a fence or a family of ducks ambling across the road, seeming for all the world as if late for work, an invisible brief case strapped to its back.  (I keep waiting for one to pull out a cell phone and start yammering to his buddy across town.) These are dogs with lives, business somewhere, a purpose, a goal.  They are beholden to no human being and, for the most part, seemed to be just fine with that state of affairs.

Sure, some are skinny with coats that are burred and matted. Some of them have endured – and survived – obvious encounters with other dogs or machines or barbed wire fences, it’s true.  They limp along on three legs or cock but a single ear; perhaps their tail curves at a decidedly odd angle.  Yet, they do not appear to be inordinately unhappy.  In fact, when they aren’t briskly on their way to some undisclosed but very important destination, they are often scrabbling with each other in that rough and tumble way of puppies or lolling about on their backs in the scrappy sunshine or sitting, sphinx-like, in bemused contemplation of the passersby on the road.  Although 99% of Americans would claim these are dogs that need to be ‘rescued,’ I am not quite sure these days what we would be rescuing them from or for.

In Moldova, you see, an animal enjoys quite a bit of free choice. Other than the percentage of the canine population that is chained within fenced gardens, dogs are free to roam about the villages. Even dogs that have a home, so to speak, generally leave it every morning to begin their rounds and only return to it sporadically during the daylight hours. (I have heard tell that this practice – of allowing dogs to move about their world – is more prevalent in the rural towns and mountain hollows of America; having grown up in Southern California, I’ve never witnessed it.  In my city, a lone dog trotting down the street would occasion a call to animal control quicker than you could open a can of Alpo.)  And if a dog decides his interests would be better served by some other human on the block, he merely begins hanging around that gate to see if some food will be thrown his way or he might be allowed a space under the woodpile out of the rain.

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The irrepressible Buddy

In Romanian there is no word for “pet.”  The concept of keeping an animal as a cosseted member of the family is fairly recent here.  Dogs and cats are part of the landscape.  The notion of spaying/neutering animals is not even on the radar.  So it’s been quite different for me to experience the fertility cycle going on in my neighborhood during the last 6-7 weeks.  The dog whom I call Buddy (and everyone else refers to as “Dik”) lately has entertained a series of lady friends here at the center. One will come, hang out for a few days, then disappear again, only to be replaced a week later with a new fluffy blonde wiggling her tail. (Buddy seems to prefer blondes.)  Interestingly enough, the sharing of the bed does not extend to the sharing of a plate – or at least the one that I provide to Buddy each and every day.  He jealously guards my favors and my person as if I, too, am a conquest that has been tamed and trained to provide him sustenance.  The Marilyn-of-the-week can look on longingly, but is not allowed to come within a couple of feet of me or his food.

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Blonde-de jour Little Sheba

This is a bit of a contrast to Kittyho’s tactics.  Kittyho showed up on the outside ledge of my kitchen window one day a couple of months ago and screamed loudly to be let in, for all the world as if I had usurped her apartment and I damn well better make room for both her and her baggage.  Her baggage being, of course, (her name is Kittyho, come on!) an entourage of male suitors that tend to gather at odd hours on said kitchen ledge and stare moodily from her to me as if one of us could rock their world. I am importuned to provide food now not just for Kittyho and her impending litter, but for all the Lotharios who may or may not have a paternity suit going.  They accept the handfuls of kibble I scatter across the kitchen ledge (these cats are too demonic to be allowed inside) though they don’t appear to need it. Sleek, well-muscled and inordinately large, apparently they either have a team of humans trained to provide or their hunting and foraging abilities are more perfectly honed than the cats I’ve had in the States.  (I don’t notice them making much effort to provide for their prospective family, however.)

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Kittyho

One of her particularly tenacious suitors (he actually looks as if he could be her father, incestuous bastard!) showed up a couple of weeks ago with a very nasty gash on his head, slicing through one ear and gaping through to the tissue below.  Back home, this type of injury would necessitate an emergency trip to the vet, with all the stitching, prescriptions, plastic head cones, instructions for bandaging and containing movement and attendant expense one can readily imagine.  Of course, none of this happened in Moldova.  I’m pretty sure there isn’t a vet in Strașeni. And I, for one, do not have the means to either transport, contain or sponsor this feline monster, nor, I imagine, would he thank me for doing so. And any Moldovan would’ve laughed in my face if I had attempted to enlist help with this endeavor.  There was a week or so during which I wondered whether he would make it. The temperature was below 0 every night and the wound continued to seep for days.  But over the course of a month, it gradually healed – as far as I can tell without any well-intentioned intervention from my species.  He continues to shadow the windowill, glowering in at Kittyho and me as we go about our daily routines.  Survival of the fittest in action, I surmise.

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The incestuous demon cat, ear fully healed

Kittyho has other mechanisms for survival in her tool belt. She is a petite, well-groomed hussy, sharp-tongued and temperamental; unlike another feline that attempted to adopt me, she does not take to being picked up or otherwise fondled unless one happens to approach her at just the right moment with just the right stroke for the exact space of time she welcomes it.  Otherwise you’re bothering me. Oh, and could you fill up the food bowl again while you’re up?  And where’s that milk you’ve been promising me?  I had assumed that she had sought me out as much for warmth and respite from her relentless pursuers as the possibility of food, but in that I was terribly, terribly wrong.  Every night – frigid temperatures, icy snow, biting wind be damned – she stretches luxuriously before the silhouetted suitors ranged across the fence outside and sashays her way through the open window to begin her rounds.  Every morning she returns between 6:00 and 7:00 bleary-eyed and weak-hipped, huddles before the bowl to consume her weight in kibble then drags herself over to her easy chair to curl atop the softest blanket in the house.  She proceeds to sleep for the entire day, with brief forays outside to relieve herself or consume another bowl of food.  Occasionally, she will leap onto the counter to try to steal the butter.  Every evening, rejuvenated, the little temptress is up to tricks again.

Meanwhile, Buddy also has the run of the neighborhood, accompanying me as he wishes down the road when I leave for my biweekly trip to the market.  He enjoys scraps from the kitchen three times daily and bags of bones brought in especially for him by the elderly that patronize the center where I live. Occasionally he disappears for days, but just about the time I begin to fret he reappears, wriggling in anticipation of attention, tail furiously wagging and sporting a badge or two of crusty fur attesting to his courage in a skirmish.  After enjoying a particularly pleasurable butt scratch (courtesy of moi) he will gather up his little hind quarters in unadulterated glee and shoot across the driveway, circling the buildings like a torpedo, whizzing by bushes and leaping over stones with the agility and grace of a gazelle. Without a doubt, he is one of the happiest dogs I’ve known. Yet no one claims him.  He is not the ‘center’s dog.’  He is merely an animal that has staked out a territory amongst a community of humans, coexisting successfully within our boundaried lives.

I contrast his life and behavior sometimes to that of my beloved Zoe back home: she spent her days passing from window to backyard gate, staring intently at any activity that happened within her line of sight, gradually getting more lethargic and less inclined to run whenever she found herself unleashed within the proscribed limits of Irvine’s Central Bark.  She never displayed much preference for anything – never cultivated a love for a specific toy, nor was she at all fond of chasing a ball or a stick.  She ate her food in a begrudging manner, if at all.  I must have tried every gourmet brand made trying to excite her taste buds, to no apparent avail. (My husband ended up buying her a crispy chicken breast daily from the supermarket deli counter after I left to get her to eat.) We walked her faithfully everyday – sometimes twice – but I cannot help but wonder how her personality and hidden passions might have developed in different environs.  I can’t say I ever thought of her as gleeful.  She mostly appeared resigned.  And she never did have the opportunity to spend the night (or week) with a male friend of her choosing…

I know I am probably stirring the hackles of many animal-lovers reading this: how can I possibly believe that a dog living on the street of Chișinău or Sochi or Kiev is better off or happier than one who enjoys the comfort of a home in the United States? I’m not claiming I do.  But a part of me wonders how far we should extend the anthropomorphizing of our animals: are they better off when the choices are made by humans?  Do we truly know what’s best for them? (After all, we’ve done such a stellar job taking care of so many other species…..)  Or do we imagine that the things that make us less afraid, more secure and comfortable – order, predictability, birth control, a steady supply of processed foods, a wall around our properties – elicit the same emotions within them?  I admit that I don’t know. But I do recognize a happy animal when I encounter one.

I’m sure Gus Kenworthy’s rescued litter will find wonderful loving families back in Colorado or wherever they might end up.  They will visit the vet and get their shots and be spayed or neutered according to protocol.  They will be fed well and probably not experience disfiguring encounters with barbed wire.    Perhaps, if they are lucky, they will belong to humans with a great deal of land and tolerance for unkempt, burr-matted coats.  If so, they will retain a little bit of that choice they’ll never know they lost in those mean streets of Sochi.

The (Worldwide) Webs We Weave

This morning I viewed a video on Facebook that gave me pause, causing me to appreciate the interconnectedness of my world and the multi-layered, radiating webs of relations we all weave while plodding through our daily lives.  Posted by one of my sister’s best friends, it was an acoustic rendition of “Happy Birthday” plucked out on a guitar by a former band mate of one of my dearest high school pals, dedicated to a 50+ man with whom I attended Catholic school some 45 years ago.  What makes these connections so mind-bending is that my sister has been dead for almost 29 years; her friend was, for a brief spate of time after my sister’s passing, my sister-in-law; I haven’t seen my high school friend (in person – I’m not counting Skype) in over 15 years nor the man from Catholic school in 25 and they met and became friends independently, years after I attended school with the latter.  The band mate and my former sister-in-law lived together back in the 80’s after being introduced by my high school friend.  Oh, the miracle of Facebook, that I can continue to witness the progression of all these relationships wherein I once played a role from minor plot development to headlining.

Spider web 2

I bother to record this here because of what it brings to bear on my experience of life in Moldova as I creep towards the conclusion (19 weeks and 2 days until it could end – but more on that in a sec) of my Peace Corps service term.  It is only now that the threads of disparate relationships are beginning to intertwine, forming stronger links to exciting projects and leading me in the direction of new prospects for actually employing the skills and experience I gathered in twenty years of people management and human resources back in the States.  It feels like it has taken so long to become grounded and integrated here, but now that I am I can barely keep pace with the flow of opportunities coming my way.

I remember so clearly, back in training, instructors and second-year PCVs constantly reinforcing how important it would be to successful service to just get out and meet people, make connections, follow-up on introductions, be persistent and pesky and endlessly curious.   What Peace Corps does, really, is put you at the starting gate in a particular place in the developing world after giving you a pep talk that lasts ten weeks, then they open the gate, wave you on and turn back to prepare for the next person stepping up to the plate.

In many ways, you truly do have the opportunity, challenge, and risk of creating your own service experience.  Some people (actually only a relative few) hit the ground running, blessed with dynamic, English-speaking counterparts and skill sets that match the needs of their communities. Others find their way more hesitantly, having to negotiate language and cultural barriers, misdirected goals, inflated expectations or complete lack of interest.  Some of them begin agitating for change, seeking a different partner, or a site move; a limited few ET. Others retreat into themselves, running daily marathons, baking pies and cookies, blowing through Candy Crush and Pet Farm Sagas, and/or consuming all available episodes of House of Cards, Game of Thrones, Downton Abbey and Breaking Bad after reading every award-winning book of the past decade. (I may have trod that particular path myself for more months than I will care to admit….except, of course, for the marathon part.)

But, finally, you meet some people. Or someone you’ve known since arrival introduces you to someone they just met. Or a new group of volunteers arrives a year after you and stirs the pot, forging new relationships that ultimately connect you. I have recently begun working with an amazing young woman who, through two degrees of separation, ended up being introduced to me after connecting with my husband on a volunteer software development project.   After 19 months of feeling like all I do in Moldova is teach English, I am beginning to formulate connections that lead to ideas that infuse energy into projects that are infinitely more challenging and interesting than any I would have the opportunity to implement in the States.

Which is the main reason why I will not be leaving, after all, in 19 weeks and 2 days on July 8, the date I drew in the Close of Service lottery held three weekends ago.  Ironically, it’s the only lottery I’ve yet ‘won’ in my life; July 8th is the very first day that anyone from the M27 group can leave Moldova. It will be tough, waving goodbye to so many people who have met so much to me for 27 months. But I already have a plan for my final year.  It involves significantly more writing, so – hopefully – I will be present here again with more frequency, and a more substantial amount of work devoted to exciting projects that are only just now developing.

It is also involves opening myself up to new people and more varied, far-flung connections. During the protracted process of staging and Pre-Service training Peace Corps Volunteers tend to bond closely with the members of their incoming group, perhaps even more closely with the 10-20 PCVs in their same program.  I have formed friendships here that I know will last for the rest of my life.  These friendships have sustained and nurtured me through some difficult periods; I have laughed and cried, celebrated and whined, shared meals, beds, and crowded rutieras with these folks.  I am lucky to have served with them and they represent a significant portion of what has been good and meaningful in my service thus far.  They have been my safety net and, unfortunately in some respects, my cocoon.

Again, my Peace Corps experience is presenting me with another meta-lesson (change leads to insight far more often than insight leads to change.)  Even the biggest changes – like ditching one’s routine existence to travel halfway across the world to volunteer in a country one never even knew existed – can be quickly subsumed by the fortifications one immediately, seemingly unconsciously, begins erecting again to shield oneself from further change.  I have (re)created a nice life for myself here, complete with English-speaking friends, lots of books, meetings in restaurants, and weekend spa dates.

Now I am preparing myself for a different experience, one filled to a much greater extent with Moldovans. Even as I write this, I am breaking every hour or so to watch another segment of a YouTube video on Moldova.  And as I was watching, I suddenly realized that large portions of it were in Romanian, which I was following without a hitch.  I feel like I have finally crossed that barrier that separated me from so much that went on around me, everyday.  I understand the language, I get the nuances of culture, and I interact with folks on a daily basis who are happy and forward-thinking and excited to have me in their lives.  I barter for ingredients in the local piața to prepare traditional dishes like zeamă and borsch that I have come to crave.  (And I know where to find cilantro and curry in Chișinau when I must have Mexican or Indian some days.) And I continue to appreciate the convenience of public transportation and not having to pay attention to the road.  Despite living on a stipend that is a meager percentage of the salary I made at home, I feel increasingly richer and more secure every day.  The web I am weaving is becoming denser, more intricate, and speckled with sparkling multi-cultured circumstances all the time.

Bine ați venit Moldova!

Spider web 1

The Road to Nowhere

I received an email from Peace Corps today. It kindly reminded me that, since there is but a scant six months separating me and my scheduled Close of Service (COS) date, the US Government will no longer be reimbursing me for any tutoring expenses I should choose to incur from this point on.   (The subtext being, of course: if you haven’t learned the language sufficiently by now we’re no longer subsidizing your lame efforts, loser.)  Now, I haven’t engaged a language tutor for some 9 or 10 months, not because I couldn’t have benefited from the tutelage but mostly because I was too lazy to search for a new one after I moved from my first site.  And now, seemingly, it’s too late.  I’m stuck with the primary grammar and intermediate vocabulary that I have cobbled together from 3 months of intense initial instruction followed up by 16 months of just living – using public transportation, making purchases, attending social gatherings, stepping on people’s feet and elbowing around them, trying to make friends and chase off hooligans, inquire as to the origin of the food I’m about to eat, and/or find my way back to familiar ground when I have inadvertently failed to follow rapidly communicated directions correctly.

And this is okay, I guess.   But it sparks the slow embers of a flaring realization: I am sliding inexorably towards an exit sign, leading to a vast, uncharted territory that I have not adequately planned, nor properly dressed for.  I am woefully unprepared for an appointment with my future.  Egads.

***

So, this is that time in most PCV’s service when our focus is suddenly jerked up – from our prospects, our projects, our parties, our partners, our preoccupation with all things toilet. We begin blinking our microscope eyes, searching for the plumb line of the horizon, flexing shoulders and toes, stretching, slowly, back into still life silhouettes, anticipating movement ahead.  Change is coming, certainly not tomorrow, but sooner than next year.  The train is still small, on its belly in the distance, smoke billowing faintly against a vague tree line; but the track is beginning to quiver, warning of its approach.

First, the days drag. They smother and weigh.  They mimic molasses and the last sticky drops of honey at the bottom of the jar. Then, they stretch and yawn, only to slump into stagnant heaps of furry formlessness for another gray sock of time.  It takes at least a year for them to muster strength, gain courage and gather some momentum, find an outline and draw a trajectory, to finally pop into a periodic semblance of productivity and purpose.  And so you have this idyllic six or seven, or even just four or five, months of actual, clear, and (hopefully) meaningful service before the powers that be jet you a reminder you that it will all be over sooner than you can fully plumb the depressing acknowledgement that you will never know Romanian better than you do now.  Party’s over folks.  Time to begin looking for your wallet and keys

***

So our group’s COS date selection is scheduled for February 2. I remember reading about this event when it happened for the M26’s last year.  Their blogs and Facebook pages were filled with it – how surprised they were, how fast it went, how unprepared they felt for leaving.  (Remember, this was when the molasses was still making its achingly slow passage across my calendar…..)   And now here I am, standing in the same corridor, facing the same blank doorway.  Oh my, how little we take away. (What is the use of all this incessant sharing anyway?  It has not an iota of impact on our individual decision making or planning processes.)

The plan is to meet, throw our desired dates into a hat, and hold our collective breath while the Country Director draws our fate, setting into stone the chronology of our individual departures – two or three days difference meaning the world to some.

Me?  I don’t really care.   I may, in fact, not be leaving this summer after all…

***

In my previous post I mentioned a quote.  “If you don’t know where you are going, then any road will take you there.”

I’ve been turning this over for days in my head.  At first, I read it as an admonishment against those who didn’t plan, a chastisement for blowing in the wind, having no direction or goal, no “personal vision” that guided their journey. But as this line of thinking simmered, I seasoned it with other spice blends of timeless wisdom stored in the keepsake box of memory: be here now; life is what happens when you’re busy making plans; change leads to insight far more often than insight leads to change; live the life you’re proud of or find the strength to start over again; make spontaneity a habit; life never stops but continues until it ends; become a connoisseur of your own mistakes; own yourself; it feels good to be lost in the right direction;…my mental stewing gained complexity, condensed and thickened… the aromas deepened.

During my time here, I have begun following a certain type of blogger – people who have made travel and ex-pat living a lifestyle.  They range in age from late 20’s to early 60’s; there are couples and single women.  There are people who have flexible jobs that allow them to work online and those that return stateside every 2-3 years to earn enough money to hit the road again.  Some of them could be deemed professionals, others are vagabond gypsies.  (One is a professional vagabond!)  They have various strategies for maintaining health and well-being, but the universal attribute they all seem to share is being ecstatically, blissfully, enchantingly happy.  They can’t get enough of their life.  I love to immerse myself in their experiences, to catch a whiff of the winds blowing them, to feel the world expand and embrace them, carry them along, going nowhere and everywhere.

***

I have spent the past couple of decades with a vague idea of a destination in my head. At some nebulous point I would reach a time when I would no longer be straight-jacketed by a job and then wonderful things would begin to happen: I would indulge my desire to write and travel and learn a new language and volunteer for a worthy cause.  I would eat better and meditate regularly. I would pare down my wardrobe and toss all my high-heeled shoes.  I would read a whole lot more.

But I had no idea how to get myself there other than stashing money in a retirement account and paying the mortgage every month.  Surely those activities would land me in the desired place, right?  It was during my late 40’s that I began to suspect that I was hoodwinking myself, that I had set my feet down a path in my 20’s that petered out on some dim horizon across a vast and arid desert.  Life was happening to me while I was scrabbling towards its end.

Joining the Peace Corps was, in part, an acknowledgement that I did not know, nor did I really care, where I was headed anymore.  I was tired of pretending that my daily activities were all coins placed in a piggy bank that I could break into someday to buy my reward.  When I lost the job, the safety net, the leash that kept me to the path, I fell.  Not just down to the ground, but through the ground; I was floating in undefined space.  There was not a road anymore, no signs pointing in any direction.  I was a ship unmoored, drifting from the harbor.  With nowhere to go, I could go anywhere.  Let the tide take me.

***

I appreciate being exactly this age, in my early 50’s, as a Peace Corps Volunteer.  Unlike those who joined after college, I am not using this experience to pad my resume, to gain legitimacy, to globally network or bolster my LinkedIn profile.  I am no longer hearing the thrum of a body clock ticking that those in their 30’s can’t shut out.  And yet, unlike (perhaps) those in their 70’s and 80’s, I still feel like I have a substantial chunk of time left to skip along to nowhere or anywhere or wherever this road I’m on might lead.  It feels good to not be planning on the future, to be fully present in what’s happening right here and now.

My past lifestyle rarely gave me the opportunity to make big changes.  I stayed in the same job, lived in the same neighborhood, patronized the same stores and restaurants, drove the same streets and freeways, and walked the same pathways with my dogs, for years and years and years.  And while this conferred an opportunity to nurture lifelong friendships, raise my daughter well, put a little money away, and grow my professional skills, it also deprived me of challenges and the courage to face them.  I began to harbor little yapping dogs of fear in my skull: “You’ll never have enough money to quit working,” “You’ll probably get cancer and die from all those year of smoking,” “By the time you retire, you’ll be too old and feeble to enjoy it,” yadda, yadda, yadda.   And while I certainly don’t knock those people who find fulfillment and reward and purpose on that particular path, it just wasn’t doing it for me anymore.  It hadn’t for a long, long time.

***

The long and short of it is that if my request for an extension is granted I am probably going to be spending another year in Moldova.  Right now I am not ready to leave this road going nowhere.  But the biggest surprise of all? I am indulging my desire to write and travel and learn a new language and volunteer for a worthy cause.  I am eating better and meditating regularly. I have pared down my wardrobe and tossed all my high-heeled shoes.  And I am reading a whole lot more.

And after that?  Perhaps next I will join those ranks of bloggers with ecstatic souls, whose feet are comfortable trodding any path, with or without signposts, or pavement, or destinations or direction.

There is so much left of life to live before it ends.