Story to Be Told

This one’s for you Maryam….

I’m one of those people who have spent a significant portion of their lives thinking about how to live, trying to ascertain what ‘happiness’ is, if it’s even something one should aspire to attain, and whether a goal-driven existence is conducive to remaining present, aware, and appreciative of what is.

For years, the conundrum presented by the role of time in shaping not just our experience of life, but how we orient ourselves toward it, has confounded me. Despite my perennial inability to grasp the mathematics that describe them, the theorems of quantum physics fascinate me, especially those that deal with time as a dimension contributing to our particular perception and subsequent construction of reality. We are, in essence, three-dimensional beings who conceptualize time as a separate force that moves us from point A to point B, even though quantum physics has shown us, time and time again (yes, pun intended,) that such is not the case and that time is merely another aspect of space. At the speed of light, the “flow” of time is arrested; one reaches the continuous, undifferentiated present. Nirvana, some might say.

All my life I have experienced moments – sometimes weeks and months – of existential panic: what am I doing, where am I headed, what is the purpose of my life? Am I applying myself diligently to becoming the best I can be? Should I be working harder, giving larger, eating better, exercising more, saving money for a rainy day, fretting about my health, perambulating the globe to see every little thing I can see? I remember, clearly, a definitive demarcation, a tipping point that shifted my internal monologue irrevocably: the moment I knew I was pregnant and heretofore responsible for another human life, my own interests and predilections were summarily shelved. Raising a child, to the best of my abilities (and that did ebb and flow throughout the years) became the plot of the narrative running through my head. I fall for this man because of his huge heart that embraces both me and my daughter; we move here because of the superior school system and safe neighborhoods; I take this job because the hours are conducive to child care; I pursue a graduate degree and further promotions to provide ballet lessons, cheerleading camp, soccer uniforms, ski vacations and chauffeured birthday trips to Disneyland; we create a decades-long routine of unwavering predictability, weather marital storms and abusive bosses, watch our waistlines expand and our alcohol consumption increase; celebrate milestones and mourn the passing of our own youthful energy and exuberance – all to realize the “goal” of raising a child.

Still, there would be nights, usually after a bottle of wine and a desultory attempt to distract myself with a novel, when I would lie staring at the four walls pressing in on me and my heart would begin to flutter, my pores would emit a sheen of cold sweat, and my breath would go in but not out of my chest. That rising panic, the sense that my life was infinitesimally small, that I would live and die in such an incredibly insignificant, flat, colorless and static space, that all the flagrant wanderlust and burning curiosity of my youth had fizzled out and come to nothing – eventually, these crescendo-ing concerns could be countered and soothed by reciting the mantra of parents the world over: I’m doing all this for him/her/them.

Of course, I know now (and probably knew even then, but couldn’t acknowledge it) that this was a just a storyline, a plausible justification for having lost my impetus for adventure and becoming averse to risk, for staying in a stultifying situation that oftentimes did not excite or delight me but provided steady progress toward commonly recognized and respected aspirations. And it did work, remarkably well, actually. We raised a mentally healthy, relatively well-adjusted and emotionally secure human being. It stopped working, however, once she fledged and left me squatting in the abandoned nest, fat and featherless, confronting a wide-open sky that suddenly terrified me in its boundlessness. It is dramatically fitting, I suppose, that it was the baby bird who called it: when I floated the idea of joining Peace Corps, of making a leap of faith into the prevailing winds, she retorted “Well, of course – what in the heck is keeping you here?”

I worried, during the final months of my service, that the existential panic might find its way back to me once I landed stateside. It had been effectively silenced in Moldova by the dramatic arc of overseas service; I had left my country, my family and friends, my language and culture and geography, all that was familiar and routine, to embark on a voluntary adventure that was socially worthy and required a long-term, steadfast commitment. Peace Corps was my new plot, the next volume in the story of my life. It was exciting and challenging and provided a plausible explanation for abandoning an unrewarding job search and depressed economic forecast. I was morally “excused” from any existential fretting for the next three years. It was glorious. Even though, sometime during my second year as a volunteer, I did acknowledge – honestly and without trying to color it differently – that this path I had chosen was just another story, a way of living harmoniously with the circumstances life had thrown at me.

Coming home, I was very conscious of the need to find a new story. My husband had relocated to Ohio – close to his family but far from mine – and I had no clear job prospects, nor any burning desire to have one. I knew my own tendencies, though: I would find some hypothetical timeline or yardstick marked by cultural-, demographic and/or gender-specific goals and then begin reactively taking my measurement against it. If I found myself lagging I would feel like shit about myself for a little (or a long) while and then find the least-stressful and most convenient way to prop myself up. Meanwhile, I would be projecting into a future when I would be decades older yet still alive and healthy and the country and the economy would still look the same and the money I had diligently earned and saved would be sufficient to allow me to live a worry-free existence. Or…I could just stop worrying. Stop measuring myself. Take my eyes off the road ahead and look around me. I could write myself a different story. Volume three. (I AM a multivolume set.)

I admit, I have been waiting for an existential panic attack like one waits for the other shoe. A bad thing happened to me: I lost my job. Then another bad thing happened: my husband lost his job. We were unemployed together for a year; he experienced additional months after I escaped to Moldova. Now I am back, still unemployed and likely to remain so for the unforeseeable future. What should I tell myself? That I need to climb back on the tired horse I’ve already ridden? Adopt the same plotline I had before? (But wait a minute – no child to blame it on…)

I’ve begun to realize that the story is absolutely mine to narrate. I can add in somber music and stormy clouds, a cast of indifferent characters, or a little wizard behind a curtain. I can pitch it as a comedy, a drama, or a cautionary tale. Before, I was a white, middle-class, educated, professionally employed, middle-aged parent who’d gone thick around the middle and a bit dull in the head but had attained the appropriate markers to deem myself a success. Even though I was virtually indistinguishable from so many others around me, I was comfortable that way. Until I wasn’t. Then, through a series of (what I now deem) fortunate circumstances I began to see the outline of a different narrative, another means of interpreting and integrating my circumstances. I could make up my own markers. (I think that’s one of the beautiful revelations of aging: one begins to see through the pre-ordained prescripts of society for what they are: a means of ensuring that a diverse, over-large population can live in close proximity without killing each other while stoking a centralized economy.) But as long as I continue to play by the meta-rules – don’t lie, cheat, steal, hurt, or murder people – I am not required to mindlessly adopt the values or life trajectory that a 21st century, capitalist, technologically-oriented, Western society proscribed for me in order to measure my own worth or the satisfaction I take from my experience. I am my own narrator, the arbiter of how my story is told.

In support of my expressed wish to further practice the craft of writing, my husband once presented me with a marvelous little book called Exercises in Style, by Raymond Queneau. In it, he tells the same innocuous tale – of a crowded bus at midday where one man accuses another of jostling him and subsequently moves to a different seat – ninety-nine different ways, employing, amongst a host of widely varying styles and interpretations, the sonnet and the alexandrine, a Cockney flair, a rhyming slang, pig Latin, an interrogative punch, and permutations by groups of 5, 6, 7 and 8 letters. It is a fascinating display of talent and a perfect illustration of how one seemingly insignificant episode can be cast in distinct molds that change one’s perception of the material.

I used to see this with the kids in foster care: the measure of their resiliency was often demonstrated by the nature of their narrative, what they told themselves about how they ended up where they were. Mostly, there were two or three variations on a victim ideology and these were generally the kids who were depressed, furious, or numb. But there were a notable few who took preternatural hold of their own script, who refused to adopt or fall back on the patterns of behavior that being abused, neglected, emotionally flayed and love starved typically generated. For whatever reason, they were exceptions to the rule. They captained their own ships; even though they did not sail their chosen seas, they decided when to hoist the sails, batten down the hatches, heave ballast, or correct their course. One definitely had the sense that they were in a position to both combat severe weather and soak up sunny skies. I admired them greatly and took courage from their buoyancy.

Currently, I have cast myself in the role of peripatetic celebrant, finding reasons to recognize, honor, and nurture my body, family, friends, skills, and curiosity. I’m not sure of the specific soundtrack yet, but know it has a lot of bass drums, trilling violins and maybe an accordion or two. I haven’t written any bad guys into the plot: perhaps I just haven’t reached that chapter yet or maybe this particular volume won’t call for them. But if some dramatic, unanticipated plot twist should occur and I find my current circumstances profoundly altered, I trust that – having owned and honed this remarkable storytelling ability that all of us time-driven beings have been gifted – I will continue to write my own lines and guide the development of my character.

I still ponder the nature of time and how it propels us seemingly forward but actually just enlarges our circumference, allowing us to take in and incorporate even more diverse aspects of experiential space-time. In occasional flights of existential fantasy, I sometimes extrapolate this to what the other side of life might be like: time-warp velocity to reach the speed of light when the point A to point B narrative is experienced in its totality and there is no distance between the moments and life becomes the iridescent, fabulous coalition of melded pointillist interpretations, kind of like those celebrity portraits comprised of hundreds of separate photos of the same person. When the “I” that is me and the “I” that is you are realized, finally, to be stories told from kaleidoscoping points of view by an unimaginably creative and powerful pulsing of possibility, in and out, in and out.

So many stories to be told. It’s good to be a writer.

Buyer’s remorse

For a short while before I actually relocated to Ohio, Mike would field the notion of us purchasing a house here; every couple of phone calls we would return to worry the pros and cons between us, for surely this would be a reasonable next step for us now that my global peregrinations have (at least for the time being) abated. Zillow lists the median price for a home in this area at $138k, about the price we paid for our 3-bedroom condo in Irvine 21 years ago. We could easily qualify on his salary alone; he is making more now than we both made together in 1995. On the face of it, it seems like a prudent decision. He’ll want to retire in the next 10-15 years and we’ll have a home that’s ours for the rest of our lives. Yet, unaccountably, I would mentally cross my arms and dig in my heels every time he mentioned it; my tendency was to lob the decision back into his court: “Well, if that’s what you want…” thereby signaling divestiture of any responsibility on my part. Why is that? I would think. Why am I so resistant to putting my name on a deed, assuming ownership of a piece of property and taking responsibility for its maintenance?

To me, having 20 years of home-ownership and a raft of friends and family members negotiating their own purchases, remodels and/or refinance packages, a house represents so much more than just a safe harbor from the elements. Ever the bourgeoisie yearning toward nobility, we have elevated the home into a personal statement, a shrine to our domestic aspirations, our creativity and artistic abilities, our purchasing power and entertainment proclivities. One can reside in an apartment, or even a rented house for that matter, and be reasonably excused from not displaying attractive shades of paint, double-pane windows, Sub-zero appliances, or custom maple flooring. But once you own that home? Well, come on now, we all do it: crossing the threshold into a new acquaintance’s home for the first time, we begin a subtle inventory of the environment, each wall-hanging, end table, throw rug, light fixture, and counter-top a physical embodiment of that person’s aesthetic sense, an external expression of their interior life and mental landscaping. We learn much about people’s values and priorities in observing the choices they make regarding their domestic surroundings. It is glaringly apparent in Moldova, where those having the means segregate themselves from the downtrodden behind block walls and painted, wrought-iron fences enclosing fabulous gardens and multi-storied fortresses with tiled interiors, Ikea kitchens, and wedding-cake window treatments. (Walk outside that gate and encounter dust-laden roads with pot-holes wading-pool deep, stray dogs with gaping wounds licking fly-laden cartons amidst strewn trash, and men in the final throws of alcoholism face down in their own piss, but that’s not your problem. Casa ta este foarte frumos. And this is not an issue exclusive to Moldova, by any means, just one made more obvious by their juxtaposition. We here in America have learned how to segregate our poverty.)

Every day, I struggle against the impulsiveness of my own acquisitiveness. Target, CVS, Costco – they are all destinations laden with temptation for me. I am particularly prone to lotions, potions and culinary gadgetry: wave a civet-scented, buffalo-tallow-based body moisturizer, chocolate-infused balsamic reduction, or stainless-steel herb slicer in my face and it’s in the basket before I’ve even noted the price. I find my hand wavering now in the drugstore beauty section: is that Moroccan argan-oil smoothing treatment really going to improve the quality of my life? Is it worth the money I’ll spend, the clutter it will add to the narrow bathroom sink, the trash it will end up becoming when the contents of the bottle are gone?

I remember all too clearly the agonizing decisions that attended the dispersal of twenty years’ accumulated furniture, house wares, clothing, tchotchkes and mementos. Every object became that much heavier, knowing that holding on came with a cost and letting go meant forever. I want to prettify my new bedroom, yet know it will take hours and hours of scouring Goodwill, Craigslist, or the local flea markets to find those specific pieces which will accurately reflect my interior landscape, the aesthetic ethic that prioritizes reuse, recycling, and re-purposing over built-in obsolescence but is generally too lazy to see a decor from concept through to fruition. I am vulnerable to the knowledge that anything I end up choosing says something about how I wish other’s to see me and so increasingly opt not to choose anything at all. Buying a house would bring on a horde of mind-cluttering decisions that I just don’t want to entertain. Paint, molding, flooring, sinks, towel racks, faucets, window coverings – shit. I’d rather read a book, take a walk, plan dinner, and write.

I am reminded, also, of a proclivity I had in childhood. My little sister and I (me in the position of Project Manager, of course) would spend hours setting up our Barbie Dream House, Kitchen Carousel, Vanity Bedroom, and vast collection of molded plastic furniture, Barbie-sized vehicles and wardrobes. With each passing birthday and Christmas, our collection became grander until our delight in the pastime was invested almost exclusively in the planning and set-up; nine times out of ten, by the time we had finished negotiating territory, diagramming architecture, meticulously constructing, then (inevitably) rearranging our fantasy Barbie world, we had little time, imagination, or interest remaining to actually play with the dolls themselves. Such foreshadowing: life becomes so dense with acquisition and planning that either we lose impetus or leave no time for the actual experience.

***

Each moment is a choice. What aging reveals to most of us is that the routine decision-track our culture programs us to follow – college major, profession, marriage, home, babies – has huge implications for conscripting our attention, creativity, and energy for years and years and years. Intercourse takes an instant (or 30, I guess, if there’s foreplay) yet its consequences may join you for a lifetime. Purchasing a home, on average, takes a handful of months; for the subsequent 15-30 years many of your future options will be influenced, conscripted, or curtailed by the need to pay that monthly mortgage. As my lifeline shrinks with each passing year, I find myself increasingly troubled by these seemingly practical decisions that threaten to catch me up, tie me down, or force me a hand I don’t wish to play. I marvel at how the past five years continue to pulse within me, alive and rich and meaningful, whereas the bulk of time from when I was 35 to 49 resembles a foggy, impenetrable valley between the craggy peaks of youth and the paradigm-shattering day I lost my job. A few years ago I attempted a journal exercise, to string a lifeline of significant memories from my earliest to the present day through discreet decades. I scribbled madly along through the first 5-6 pages, recalling kindergarten playmates, newborn pets, neighborhood bullies, schoolyard embarrassments, and classroom crushes. Clear as day were recollections of Humboldt, nights of Ecstasy, travels through Big Sur, dynamic debates in college seminars and the brain explosions they induced, my sister’s death, my daughter’s birth, my impetuous first marriage, and the night Mike and I kissed for the first time. But then the memories abruptly dropped off, disappearing into that long low valley obscured by a hazy sameness, an undifferentiated terrain that did not change, year after year after year. For three pages, representing the years 1990 through 2010, I recorded exactly five memories: interviewing at Canyon Acres, breaking my ankle; marrying Mike, traveling to South America, and losing my job. Otherwise, my time line lay undistinguished and mute, terrifying in its utter blankness. With each moment so precious and ever dwindling, how did I let a huge swath of my life be swept under a rug?

Comparing the last five years with that monstrous erased portion of time, I find that the key lies in change. I stayed in the same house, worked for the same employer, was married to the same man, drove the same freeways, shopped at the same markets, and palled around with the same folks for one long, unbroken marathon of years. And I realize that for some people this is the epitome of happiness: routine, predictability, the sense of accomplishment and having arrived into the fullness of one’s life is the essence of success. You’ve hit all the markers and walked off with the prize. Yet how come literature and music and film are replete with those characters who, having wrested the trophy from the clutches of adversity with much personal sacrifice, find themselves intoning that age-old litany: Is that all there is?

I happened upon an excerpt from the German psychologist Marc Wittman’s recent book Felt Time: the Psychology of How We Perceive Time that explains much to me:

In order to feel that one’s life is flowing more slowly — and fully — one might seek out new situations over and over to have novel experiences that, because of their emotional value, are retained by memory over the long term. Greater variety makes a given period of life expand in retrospect. Life passes more slowly. If one challenges oneself consistently, it pays off, over the years, as the feeling of having lived fully — and, most importantly, of having lived for a long time.

I want to live, actually live, for a long more time. I am awed by the fragility of my existence, its propensity to slide towards ennui when I don’t consciously mind my moments. I wish to handle it reverently, like a newborn babe, breathing in all its potentials while remaining aware of how my choices manifest them, or not. Life is such an awesome responsibility, such a burgeoning gift that responds abundantly in rewarding our attention, yet how little of it we sometimes pay. Those five regrets of the dying volleyed through the internet a number of years ago were each the echo of decisions made, reverberations of unmindful choices that struck their last resounding knell over people’s death beds. My 73-year-old father, in one poignant sentence over the breakfast table, summed up his sudden sense of urgency upon recovering from a scary bout of viral meningitis: I feel like I’m running out of time. It is unfortunate that it often takes a brush with catastrophe to set those alarm bells ringing. Then again, such presents us with the mercurial opportunity for gratitude even in our darkest hours, like the (truly) immortal line of OneRepublic’s jubilant anthem Counting Stars: Everything that kills me makes me feel alive.

I’m still undecided about the house. And I’m going to live with that for now.

Otherwhens, otherwheres

Crossing the parking lot on the way to the gym I pass a woman standing on the sidewalk dragging a cigarette   finishing up as I’m walking by flicks it behind her   the epitome of my mental image when I think the words low-rent apartment and I almost call out to her (but I don’t, of course, cause I never do) that the other day walking across the parking lot I was behind a woman in heels, skirt above the knee but severe, bearing an umbrella and bits of trash, every ten feet or so bending down neatly to add her handful and when I passed her she shrugged her shoulders and smiled  – People, what can you do…. –   and I took a few more steps before I turned to thank her, remembering how my first few weeks back from otherwheres, walking the straight, clean sidewalks, how I’d stop to pick up the stray bit even though it cost me momentum and twinged my hip to bend and no one ever noticed and the streets stayed clean and eventually I just stopped doing it because my momentum became more important even though my hip didn’t hurt anymore

Walking the treadmill staring out at four hoodie-ed workers huddled at the bottom of the waterless pool scraping and brushing as it starts to rain and one by one they climb out to stand under the overhang and one by one hand into pocket out comes the pack (shake shake shake) and hand in the other to light boy do I know the moves and I am walking harder watching them while their eyes turn a corner watching/not watching me (is one of them female?) as they inhale and I inhale and I remember being them other whens and wheres until one by one they flick those burning roses and turn aside and there’s the line

I could never do that is that the California in me?

Market High

Market High

One of the distinct pleasures of living in Moldova – and I believe most of my M27 cohorts will agree on this one – was shopping at the Chișinău outdoor market, called the piața in Romanian (pronounced pee-aht-za.) The piața was located in the center of downtown, spreading across a couple of city blocks, pedestrian-only, no cars allowed. Here, one could find virtually anything from vegetables, fruits, meats, dairy products and fresh-baked bread to screwdrivers, sweatshirts, bicycle tires, alcohol, pet leashes, and laundry soap. There existed no map of vendors, though like items – such as clothing, hardware, and cleaning products – tended to be located in roughly the same areas. Initially, one had to rely on second-year volunteers to give directions (“turn left where the old Russian guy is selling radios, then go until you see the egg ladies, make a hard right and you’ll be in front of the fish place.”) Invariably, it was wall-to-wall shoppers: bunicăs hobbling in sturdy shoes, stabbing their canes ahead of them; wiry teenagers pushing carts laden with boxed produce pell-mell through the crowds, no regard for elbows or toes; fathers bearing small children aloft on shoulders; young fashionistas tilting along on impossibly high heels. It took me almost a year to familiarize myself with the varied wares hidden within its twisting, turning corridors and yet another one to have sufficient command of the language to negotiate a fair price and not automatically accept the (usually inflated) “American” price proffered to English-only speakers. During my third year food shopping became an almost daily task, not only due to the limited space in my pint-sized fridge, but largely because I welcomed the bustling, cacophonous counterpoint it provided to my otherwise calm and ordered existence. The morning dive into the piața’s seething sea of flesh and the contact it provided with those who brought the garden to my table was a definite high point of the day.

One of my intentions in making a transition to life back in the states was to continue this practice of walking to a local market to purchase the ingredients for my dinner. This quickly proved overly time-consuming, however; Irvine has a wealth of diverse shopping venues but it was built to support car-culture, not pedestrians seeking to tick off the day’s purchases in fewer than ten miles. Often, my list would contain items found only in specialty stores – Whole Foods or Mother’s or the Indian grocery, say – or bulk items that were most reasonably priced at Trader Joe’s or Costco. I would generally walk to one of these locations daily, but then spend another hour driving around in my car to all the other places. It was so easy to slip back into the habit of buying a week’s worth of food, sacrificing crispness in my vegetables or firmness in my fruit for the added time gained by not having to run around to four or five stores each day.

And then I got to Fairfield and met Jungle Jim.

Jungle Jim's

My husband had waxed rhapsodic about Jungle Jim’s International Market from the moment he discovered it a month or so after moving to Ohio. (I believe he actually chose his apartment based on its proximity to the store.) He was so enamored with its eclectic set-up and cornucopia of products that we soon jokingly began referring to it as ‘Church’ in our daily telephone calls, as in “I need to hang up now; I just drove into the parking lot of Church.” He went almost every day after work and would then call back to inform me about what spectacular cut of meat he’d scored or the marvelous discovery he had happened upon in the candy aisle (Presidential Pez-head dispensers, chocolate-covered crickets) or the offerings at the tasting bar (chocolate stout, sparkling pear wine) that evening. As the date of my move east approached, I began mapping out the locations of my favored markets and was horrified to learn that, not only were there no Trader’s Joe’s or Whole Food markets within walking distance, their closest outposts were some 20 miles south in Cincinnati. “Don’t worry,” he told me. “You’ll find everything you need at Jungle Jim’s.” Really? I found myself thinking. Do they even know what bulgur is in Ohio?

It stretches my descriptive powers to properly convey the circus-cum-carnival-meets-back-country-five-&-dime atmosphere of this place. Yes, indeed, there are life-sized, paper-mache giraffes, monkeys, flamingos, and elephants gathered to greet you where the waterfall dumps into penny-toss pool out front. Carousel? Check. Monorail? Check. Entertainment center regularly hosting comedy nights, wellness festivals and weddings? Uh-huh. In-store Starbucks, cigar-shop, toy store, cooking school? Yep, yep, yep and yep. Need to do some banking? No problem, in the store. Pharmacy? We got you covered. Post office? Need you ask? The average American supermarket stocks, on average, 47,000 products, most of which are produced by only a handful of food companies. Compare this to JJ’s website claim that they offer over 150,000 brands, 60,000 of which are produced by global manufacturers from Edinburgh to Istanbul. Seriously, you can buy a floor-sized hookah in the Middle Eastern aisle for $109. There is a 75 foot row of soy sauces – that’s it, just soy sauces. 180 different types of hot sauce. A three aisle section devoted entirely to cheese, It stocks one of the largest wine collections in the United States. (It has a hell of a lot of beer, too.) The store is 200,000 square feet and I think, just like the piața, it will take me a good year to learn all that it contains. (Who knows, there might be bicycle tires.) And it’s a ten minute walk from my front door.

My husband has actually met James O. Bonaminio, the eponymous originator of Jungle Jim’s. He encountered him in doctor’s scrubs at last year’s Beer Fest (“Is there a doctor in the house?” the overhead speakers would periodically announce,) but has run into him since working alongside stockers and checkers in jeans and tennies. In 2012 he opened a second location just outside of Cincinnati. I am tempted to ask if he’d franchise. I could see this making a hit in LA.

Jim
The wizard himself, Jungle Jim

***

Ten years ago I never thought much about shopping for food; it was a chore that fit in somewhere between gassing up the car and dropping off the dry cleaning. But in the last couple of years it’s become a significant aspect of my day, something I view as one ingredient in a larger composition having to do with my health and well-being. Even before Moldova, I’d been conscious of the amount and type of food that I consume, the way it’s been grown and processed, how much packaging surrounds it. Then, shopping in the piața taught me how the very act of purchasing can differ from place to place, and that finding and selecting my ingredients can be a pleasurable task, rather than just another chore in my busy day. And now Ohio has gifted me an amusing, one-of-a-kind, wonderland of international, organic, farm-to-table, fresh caught, small-craft fare that provides me both a daily dose of happiness and a nice walk to boot. Who would’ve thought one could find such think outside a multi-chain corporate conglomerate?

And if any of you are interested in chocolate-covered insects, let me know. I can mail them to you right from the store.

Trading down for uptime

Now that my Peace Corps service is over and the residual effects of my father’s viral meningitis are fading and I have landed – finally – back in residence with my husband, I am faced with the prospect of What to Do Now? Over the past few months, this question has unfurled like a fiddle-head fern, sprouting its own leafy series of subheadings, such as: What defines success? Security? How much is enough? Which goals are generated by fear? Anxiety? Acquisitiveness? Envy? How often does regret, or guilt, or the regard of my peer group impel my choice of activities? Living inside of a different culture for three years has gifted me a different perspective on my own; stepping stones I took for granted for most of my adult life – undergoing education; managing my career; acquiring real estate; seeking promotions and increased responsibility (read: higher paychecks;) scheduling leisure, as well as physical, activity time; upgrading my phone, vehicle, exercise equipment, entertainment systems, appliances and wardrobe to remain abreast of current trends – all have been yanked from their purposeful pedestals and called in for interrogation.

I have just come from a weekend reunion of ten of my M27 cohorts (the 27th group of PCVs to serve in Moldova) and these suddenly suspect notions provided an unspoken backdrop to most of my conversations. All but two of us left Moldova in July of 2014, the scheduled close-of-service for our two-year stint (I stayed an extra year, one woman left a year early, in 2013.) This reunion afforded me the opportunity to see how those who had been home for 2-3 years picked up the threads of their past lives. What were their values? Dreams? Aspirations? Goals? How does one reboot after a life-altering experience? The ways I found are as varied as the people who tread them.

Our host, widowed shortly before her service, has taken a part-time job working as a counselor with the homeless in her mid-sized town. This might be viewed as a step down from the positions of managerial responsibility she held in the past; what she likes most about the work is the engagement it provides with her community and the increased free time she gains from working only 20 hours per week. Of the remaining nine attendees, the only person besides our host older than me is retired and engaged to be married to another M27; while she fund raises for the local university, he keeps busy volunteering for various civic organizations and both are actors  in their community’s theater group. One couple is employed with the federal government; looking to continue overseas assignments, they elected the standard path through DC after PC service. Both are strongly concerned with work-life balance and avoiding consumer-culture. Another is recently married with a 4-month-old son; she enjoys taking him to museums, parks, baby massage and yoga classes. One is finishing up grad school and is still undecided about next steps; another is employed in her family’s business and travels extensively throughout the USA, enjoying a weekly change of scenery that has kept her surprisingly satisfied. One of the youngest attendees flew in from India where she spent the past four months working in youth development; she spoke to me wistfully of the broadening chasm between herself and her childhood friends, who all grew up in NYC, have fast-track jobs, substantial disposable income and a preoccupation with fashion and celebrity. The last two attendees (one of whom married a Moldovan who has joined her here in the States) are working in food services and finance, respectively, with avid avocations (salsa dancing, wine-making, animal husbandry) which they’ve prioritized over careers.

Such a mixed lot,varied ethnic and socioeconomic origins, ranging in age from 27 to 65, hailing from eight states and two continents. The probability of us all meeting – much less becoming close friends – outside of Peace Corps is pretty much nil. And that, in the end, is the legacy of Peace Corps service: possibilities increase exponentially. What I found so compelling being in their company once again was finding automatic re-entry into that space of open horizons, optimistic buoyancy and a dearth of fear that defines Peace Corps Volunteers, their enthusiasm for being alive now and eagerly anticipating what comes next infectious, intoxicating, and soul-satisfying. Not one of them hates where they’re at or what they’re doing; I spent 48 hours without encountering an ounce of bitterness, weariness, frustration, resignation or regret.

Just prior to my departure for Moldova happened upon a poem by Rumi, the 13th-century Persian jurist, Islamic scholar, theologian, and Sufi mystic. It resonated so strongly with me it became the eponymous genesis of this blog:

We must become ignorant of all that we have been taught

And be instead bewildered.

Run from what is profitable and comfortable.

If you drink those liqueurs

You will spill the spring waters of your real life.

Forget safety.  Live where you fear to live.

Destroy your reputation, be notorious.

I have tried prudent planning for long enough.

From now on I live mad.

At the time, my life of twenty-odd years had been upended: my husband and I had lost our jobs and we’d sold our home to avoid losing it, disposing of 95% of our material belongings in the process. We had been forced into circumstances that neither one of us would have voluntarily chosen, yet I was unaccountably thrilled by the experience. We had both been so unhappy for such a long, long time, but were too conditioned by routine and material comforts to risk making the changes that might ameliorate our misery. Peace Corps became my escape hatch, a stepping stone, a means of prudently planning a way to live mad. And, indeed, it served to destroy my professional reputation, at the very least, (one can’t take a lengthy break from HR administration and law without repercussions) and, in some ways, made me notorious, at least among my oldest friends and more conservative acquaintances who didn’t quite recognize this inexplicable compulsion to throw a perfectly respectful upper-middle class life out the window to go live in a developing country on a stipend. Why would I walk away from all I had worked so hard to accumulate, rather than buckle down and find a way to preserve it? Wasn’t I worried about the future, finding another professional position, affording a new house, purchasing another round of furniture and appliances, buying another car, increasing my retirement accounts? My husband and I were well into middle-age: this was not the time for a gap year. But those concerns were threadbare and meaningless to me – I was truly running from what was profitable and comfortable, for suddenly I recognized how such prosaic rewards had sapped my vitality and all that was fresh and astonishing from my day-to-day existence.

Now my running has returned me full circle and, this time, I have the opportunity to choose from exponential possibilities without having to extricate myself from a comfortable routine. While I was overseas, my husband made some risky changes of his own, relocating to a more affordable area of the country where he was able – after many scary months of unemployment – to secure a better paying position with a profitable company doing work that he loves. We are now living in a low-rent apartment, in a less-than-prestigious community, with the minimum of furniture, driving older-model cars. One choice? Hit the replay button: I could find another career-track job, which would enable us to purchase a new house (here, they’re about ¼ of the price of the median home in California,) upgrade to late-model cars, acquire again the latest appliances and electronic paraphernalia, eat out five times a week, expand our vacation and entertainment allowances, and put away even more money for that ambiguous someday when we’ll both retire. Indeed, we debated the pros and cons of reconstructing our old life but just can’t get around the blue elephant slumped in the room: for almost a decade, we were desperately unhappy playing that game. Once the novelty of having grown-up salaries and adult-sized furniture wore off, we discovered ourselves chest-deep in those mind-numbing, soul-sucking, energy-drains that financed our lifestyle, unable to pull ourselves out. Back then, we were waiting for retirement to legitimize our suffering. But now, having bottomed out involuntarily, why would we knowingly dive in again? At some level we understand that the choice to recreate what we’ve already done is trying to play catch-up, no longer with the Jones’s, who’ve since trounced us in the material sense, but with an ideal that was sold to us (and Americans in general, dare I say) about what it means to be successful and self-actualized.

I am hesitant to claim we have found a better alternative, but we are, at this point, willing to have less in order to experience more. Once we looked beyond the “need” to for us both to be remuneratively employed, we saw the possibility of improving our lives by investing my time, instead, in homemaking. Yep, you read that right: cooking, cleaning, washing, shopping – all that unacknowledged ‘women’s work’ that a whole generation of females has been beating back since the 60’s and 70’s and (some) are still fleeing today. Wait a minute – WHAT??? What would possess a college-educated professional capable of commanding a healthy income, especially one without small children at home, to relinquish her economic freedom and restrict herself to manual labor in a low-rent apartment in an anonymous suburb of Cincinnati? It seems antithetical to every single feminist standard I’d inhaled during my formative years. In fact, on the surface, it sort of resembles the lives of many Moldovan women I vaguely pitied while living in the village. Yet, at this moment, it seems the perfect employment of my time and energy. Living in Moldova, I found myself enjoying the morning walk to the piața or the local veggie market. I looked forward to cooking a nutritious, delicious meal for the evening. Doing wash, hanging it to dry in the sun and breeze outside, carefully folding it to press the creases in my pants and blouses – all gave me a subtle, but sweet pleasure. Sweeping the floor became a meditation, similar to raking sand in a Buddhist garden. My house was small and my needs were few – I spent a great deal of time staring out the window witnessing the seasons change. I felt peaceful and fulfilled in a way I had never managed to achieve in my American middle-class life. The prospect of returning to the pace and stressors of my stateside existence discomfited me (which contributed largely to my opting to stay a third year.) My work was minimal, yet satisfying. No one expected me to move mountains, run faster, jump further, fly higher, or prove my worth. I was heralded for showing up, participating, smiling, listening, sharing, caring. Moldova was the first time in my life beyond childhood that I felt comfortable having no driving ambition. I existed. And existence was satisfying.

Here’s the thing: my husband and I ARE middle-aged and no amount of money in the world is going to guarantee us a certain amount of breathing time to enjoy life. With his income sufficient to support the two of us and our material requirements few, I am free to attend to both homemaking and those time-consuming tasks – think standing in line at the DMV, comparing insurance policies, cashing in recycling, picking up prescriptions, waiting for repairmen, scheduling vehicle maintenance – that used to eat away at our free time or never get done. Either way, they were nagging necessities that provided little joy in accomplishment and left us both feeling constantly harried and dissatisfied. Couple that with jobs that were aggravating, deleterious, and seemingly designed to fail and it is no surprise that we turned to food and alcohol and technology as primary panaceas. Conversely, in opting for simplicity and parsimony, what we gain is more leisure time, healthier lifestyles, less stress, fewer arguments, and an increased ability to enjoy each other’s company. We are both happier and (naturally) more pleasant to be around.

I am hoping that all this new-found free time will lead to more productive creativity, that I will be present here and pushing pen across paper more than I have been in the last 6-7 months. If nothing else made apparent the difference between circumstances, the move from Moldova to the US surely stole away the hours that formulated the musings that I used to pour out here.

Luckily, an excerpt from yet another poem, this one by Mary Oliver, arrived to give me guidance for this next phase:

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it
.

I spent too way many years blindfolded, bored and complaining. I look forward to having time to pay attention, finding things astonishing, and writing all about it……

What’s Next?

This is the question dogging me these days. Back in the States for just eight days after 39 months of Peace Corps service, I still haven’t settled on either a pithy or honest reply. Waiting for my body clock to reset (still falling asleep at 6:30pm and waking at 2:30am almost every day) and ticking off items on the re-entry list – medical and dental appointments, car search, unpacking, catching up with friends and family – are distracting me for the moment. There are many, varied options for the future floating on the horizon, though. More volunteering? A job? Cross country road trip? Staring out the window blankly? It’s a little like finishing with college and pondering the weighty question of what to do with the rest of one’s life. Which I never really had the opportunity to indulge, being the single mother of a three year old at the time of my graduation. I like that I’m getting to fill in the blanks in my autobiography, even though it’s on a somewhat skewed timeline. I do know that I won’t be returning to the life I left in 2012. All that is gone now – the house, the job, the car, the dogs, all the spices I had accumulated in the pantry.

Another chapter to be written in the Book of Revelation.

Last Bell

BellSeptember 1st is an important day in Moldova – “First Bell” recognizes the end of the summer and the commencement of the new school year. Teachers are feted with flowers, school children dress in their very best, lengthy speeches are made, and many, many (MANY) photos are taken. As I sit in my apartment in the center of Chișinău, windows shut tight against the mounting heat, I can hear the bands playing, the operatic solos, and the muffled booming of amplified oratories.

Today is my last day as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Moldova. In a couple of hours I will receive my final medical clearance, turn in my work permit, and – if I capitulate to tradition – ring the large copper bell mounted on the wall outside the entryway to Peace Corps office. Then I will pass through the large metal gate, hear it buzz-lock behind me, and start another new chapter of my life.

Let the bells ring!