A Blazing Sun

Just as a piece of matter detaches itself from the sun to live as a wholly new creation so I have come to feel about my detachment from America. Once the separation is made a new order is established, and there is no turning back. For me, the sun had ceased to exist; I had myself become a blazing sun. And like all other suns of the universe I had to nourish myself from within.

Henry Miller from The Cosmological Eye

I would be lying if I didn’t admit that at various points during the past year I have wondered whether I would make it to 2014 here in Moldova.  Especially during those stark winter months after returning from Morocco, when I had no partner or assignment and the only bump in my weekly calendar was three hours of language lessons, I would fondle thoughts of hoisting the white flag and emerging from the trenches of my despair to board a jet plane back to America.  With barely nine hours of daylight to fill, I was dog paddling each day through despondency, trying to hold my head up despite having nothing to plan for beyond my next meal.  Once, my mood got so bleak that I Skyped my sister-in-law and had her walk outside with her laptop and hold it aloft to the blazing California sun just to remind myself that it still existed.

It was exactly during one of those low points, having called home for the fifteenth time in a matter of weeks, that my father offered me a ticket to surprise my mother for her 70th birthday. I was hesitant, but really only for about two minutes. My solemn vow not to ‘waste’ any of my precious 48 vacation days to return to the US sidled out the back door – I desperately wanted, needed, to feel at home again.  Because my mom’s birthday conflicted with Turul Moldovei 2013 – the only project I had going at the time – we decided on Mother’s Day, instead.   I hung up the phone and purchased a ticket.  It was February 8th.  Only 3 month and 3 days to go.

Thus began the countdown of anxiety.  What would it actually feel like to be home again?  So good I couldn’t stand the thought of returning? How much had things changed during the year I’d been gone? Would I feel strange, different, separate, alienated? Should I have accepted this expensive gift from my father when I had so fervently committed to being gone for 27 months? Was I cheating somehow?  If I did indeed return would it make the second year even harder – having to say goodbye to everybody yet again, this time knowing what was in store for me?

As fate would have it, soon after I bought the ticket I was offered the opportunity to relocate to my current site.  Daylight increased, the snow melted, and spring made a show-stopping appearance almost overnight.  My new apartment was lovely – located in a senior center full of laughing, warm, and gregarious souls who immediately enveloped me in a circle of hospitality and friendship.  I had a workplace, a partner, and an assignment.  For the first time since pre-service training, I was busy.

My anxiety about going home increased.

Why was I tempting fate?  I had made it through my first winter, probably the roughest patch I would experience during my service.  Life was brighter, my mood was elevated, and things were finally falling into place.  Why interrupt the flow with a step backwards?  Would Moldova end up paling when placed under the bright lights of America? But the non-refundable ticket was purchased; good idea or not, I was going home.

Femeia frumoasa
Femeia frumoasa

And, indeed, the tears burst forth the moment I clutched my daughter in the airport.  In the 27 years since her birth, I had never gone longer than four or five months without seeing her.  This time, the passage of time was readily apparent. My little girl was finally, irrevocably gone; this was a full-fledged woman I was greeting.  How could I have left her for so long? Can one year alter a face, a posture, a presence so greatly?

More tears when I locked onto my husband’s eyes through the windshield as he pulled the Jeep up to the curb at LAX.  I was transported back to the last half of 2011 and the idyllic interlude of our journey across America: just the two of us and our dog exploring the national parks and forests, camping, hiking, cooking our meals under the stars until summer bled into autumn. His presence in the driver’s seat brought it all back.  If there was one thing that could make me abandon all, it would be the chance to recapture those months and sit beside him through those miles again.

The tears let loose again when I felt myself revert back 40 years, suddenly a little girl again in her mother’s arms.  To heighten the surprise, I had hidden in my brother’s backyard (he and my sister-in-law were hosting the Mother’s Day celebration.) When my mom came in the house, I called her from my iPad on the Google voice number I use in Moldova.  I asked her if she could hear me, as I always do when commencing a call. I was surprised when she said she couldn’t (geez, I was barely 50 feet away!)  I began the Verizon riff: “Can you hear me now? Can you hear me now?” as I made my way into the house.  When I finally came around the corner of the hallway, I added “Because I’m right here.” Her legs promptly gave way and she fell in a heap on the floor in front of me.  (My dad said it was worth every penny of the ticket.)

Yet, there were also little things that caught me off guard.  My dogs barely acknowledged me. Unlike those YouTube videos of returned soldiers whose dogs about explode when they walk in the door, mine acted as if I’d just rounded the corner from the bedroom. 

Everything seemed inordinately expensive.  I spent the equivalent of my entire PC monthly stipend on one trip to Target to ‘pick up a few things.’  A dinner out with friends could have bought me ten nights out at Pizzamania in Moldova (with wine.)  Parking for an hour at the beach would buy two round trip bus tickets from my village into Chișinău.

And the cars.  The endless stream of cars.  The streets built for a multitude of vehicles and the sound and smell of them filling the atmosphere.  The parking lots – acres and acres of parking lots. I’d never noticed how much space is devoted to parking cars in America.  And how people drive everywhere, mostly alone in a bubble of their own creation.  No sweaty armpits shoved in their faces. No jostling for space among strangers, wondering if you should buy a seat for your bags.  But also a huge, artificial border. As if we each existed on our own space ship, controlled our own climate, sped through the day alone.

Mostly, everything was the same as it was when I first decided I needed to go.  Sitting with my friends, listening to them talk about their jobs and homes and weekend excursions and new purchases, I felt strangely apart.  These concerns, realities, worries, and excitements were no longer mine.  They hadn’t been for more than two and a half years.  Sifting through the mercurial sands of memory, I remembered that I had consciously desired, then chosen to separate myself from this world.  I had wanted to nourish myself from within.

My BFFs
My BFFs

And when – after 27 hours of international flights, transfers, security checks, baggage claim, visa stamps, bus rides and a twenty minute hike down a dirt road with my luggage – I finally turned the key in the lock and entered back into my sunlit, solitary, sparsely furnished domain, I felt the warm welcome of home.

Moldova appears just a bit different to me now.  A little more lush.  A little less alien. Perhaps it’s the just the abundance of spring – the thunderstorms, the nesting birds, the bursting palette of flowers. Or the unbridled enthusiasm and genuine smiles of all those who exclaimed at my return.  Or maybe the ticking clock that steadily punctuates the blanketing silence in my very own apartment – the first I’ve had in fifty-one years of life on this planet.

I know now, for the very first time, that I did the right thing.  I have become my own sun. 100_2216

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An Appeal for Volunteerism

I am a Peace Corps Volunteer.  Most of you know that and are familiar with the ups and downs and twists and turns in my life journey that deposited me here, halfway across the world, 6,000 miles distant from family and friends and my dog and my ‘stuff’ – all the ingredients that I thought completed me and defined me for fifty years.  It has been a challenging, ego-deflating, doubt-laced, confusing, but ultimately totally worthwhile adventure.

Because, you see, I feel like I am finally acting in a manner that aligns with my oft-spouted beliefs.  I am attempting to do good in the world in a way that does not accrue benefits specifically for myself or my immediate circle (i.e. “volunteering”) because I believe that the impact I can have will ultimately afford me a bigger reward – personally and in my relationship to the world.  I believe in community.  I believe that human beings are intrinsically and indissolubly connected.  And, by the end of my tour here in Moldova, I will know it in my soul because I will have lived out this experience.

The second goal of the Peace Corps (we have three) is to help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served. And one thing that I truly appreciate about my fellow citizens is their unbridled willingness to jump in and help.  According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics (NCCS), more than 1.5 million nonprofit organizations are registered in the U.S. This number includes public charities, private foundations, and other types of nonprofit organizations, including chambers of commerce, fraternal organizations and civic leagues.  I worked for one of them for 20 years.  And it never failed to inspire me how many Americans give of their time, money, labor, and heart to support causes and people which ask for their help.

Unfortunately, the idea of “volunteering” has a negative connotation in Moldova that is just now beginning to shift.  You see, many men were conscripted as “volunteer” soldiers for the border skirmishes  that have beset this tiny nation for a goodly portion of their existence.  The good news is that there are many people here – from the European Union, America, and Moldova itself – who are making great efforts to change this perception.  Non-profits are proliferating and youth, especially, are becoming increasingly invested in their own nation and its well-being.  But they still need help.  And they profit immensely by meeting volunteers and becoming more familiar with the personal goals, commitments, and philosophies that drive their efforts

To celebrate the 20 year anniversary of Peace Corps Moldova, a group of us are setting out, on foot, to visit 31 towns and villages along two 150 km routes winding through the countryside.  At the end of two weeks, we will meet in the capital for a big, public celebration.  We want to share our stories and encourage the people we meet to engage with their communities, to assist their neighbors and others in need, through the selfless – but hugely gratifying – act of volunteering.  We hope to lead by example and make a small difference here by fostering the spirit of giving that brought all of us to this country.  We want to illustrate the benefits that accrue to both the giver and the receiver in the volunteering experience.

SO.  And here is what I am truly after – can you help?  We have applied for a Peace Corps Partnership Program grant that matches money donated by Americans with funds raised in Moldovan communities in order to make this walk a reality.  The beautiful thing is that American dollars go a lot further in Moldova – even $5 would make a big difference.

If you believe in community and in the efforts of volunteers to build and sustain them – in your own neighborhood and throughout the world – please consider supporting this project.  I will be posting pictures and stories from the walk, so you will be able to join with us virtually and cheer us on.

Click here to go to the Peace Corps page where you can donate securely and read more about the project.  Your contribution is, of course, tax deductible.

Thank you, so much, not just for the money you might give but for reading and encouraging me during this amazing journey.  You sustain me.

Here I am…

Having returned (and survived) six days of training, intensive language study, and meetings in Chișinău, I thought I would catch up those of you who care here instead of writing emails explaining my protracted online absence (sorry Mom!)

PDM – Project Design Management

(or, how to get your partner to finally believe what you’ve been saying all along)

Though many PCVs will complain about having to sit through trainings, in the end this one proved to be one of the more helpful ones we’ve endured.  Although I am currently without a partner, I did attend and sat in on discussions between a couple of my friends and their partners.  All of the volunteers I spoke with commented on experiencing that hit-yourself-on-the-head moment when they witnessed their Moldovan counterpart nodding in sage agreement to something that the trainer had said, usually a basic bit of standard accounting  practice or how to properly state objectives or putting outcome measurements in place that were just not accepted or valued when articulated by the volunteer at site.  (Of course, most of us have trouble articulating anything more profound than inquiring after someone’s family or refusing a third cup of wine, so perhaps it was all lost in translation.)

PC Moldova staff seems to understand and appreciate the basic cultural chasms that threaten to engulf all one’s good intentions and resolute cheer and hence schedule training at strategic points throughout one’s service in anticipation. This one definitely hit the mark.  While it was somewhat disappointing to be there stag, it was good to be part of the general positivity and energy in the room for the two and half days of the training.

The nights are another matter altogether….

Because our times together as a group are dwindling, volunteers took full advantage of the opportunity to “be American” and hang out together in the big city. My preference for smaller groups and more intimate gatherings kept me generally out of the loop; the one night I did join in – Friday – I suffered the casualty of discovering my iPhone swimming in a puddle of red wine on a table where I had left it unattended for a span of minutes.  The screen is now obstinately silver gray and I can only see the icons by holding it to a bright light and tilting it at an angle. Sigh.

Language Training

(or, stepping up to the broader conversation topics just beyond a third grader’s reach)

Although I am fortunate to have the services of a superior language teacher at site, many volunteers live so far out that they have no access to regular, quality language instruction.  So Peace Corps provides this last little bit of help to launch us beyond subject-verb clauses into more meaty discussions containing direct/indirect objects, subjunctive phrases and maybe an adverb or two.  Poftim.

What I enjoyed most about this two day session was the opportunity to speak at length with the instructor without having to remain on a third grade level.  She helped us formulate our thoughts and clarify our responses to queries ranging from family dynamics (“Who should be responsible for finances in a family, husband or wife?”) to personal goals and objectives (“Is it important to strive for a good professional position?”) to  the political arena (“Do you think Moldova would benefit from joining the European Union?”)  It is wicked good to be able to converse with a host country national in their native language on topics beyond daily schedules and sustenance. Because I often times have trouble following the rapid speaking styles of most people here, I just can’t maintain my end of the conversation in these areas in most instances.

Sunday, through several hours of unhurried conversation, I discovered our instructor to be thoughtful, sensitive, hopeful, and a huge fan of Americans.  She commented at length on how becoming a Language Teaching Instructor (LTI) for Peace Corps Moldova has changed her way of being in the world.  When she was first hired, she went through a series of trainings that taught her about how Americans typically behave and perceive others, and it made her consider the manner in which she usually reciprocated – not only to Americans but even relative to other Moldovans.  Now she understands and appreciates the value of exchanging smiles with people walking on the street, or cultivating relationships with the checker at the market, or being more empathetic with the fifth-level students at her school who chafe at rules and recitations.  The Second Goal of the Peace Corps – helping to promote a better understanding of Americans in the people served – has an impact even within the context of Moldovan’s relationships with each other and not just for those who might conceivably travel or live in the United States at some point. This intelligent and inquisitive woman has gained a broader perspective of what it means to be human and I was very proud realizing that America had a piece in her learning.

Turul Moldovei 2013

(Or, the announcement you’ve all been waiting for…)

I am aware that every time I’ve happened to mention Turul Moldovei in this blog I’ve followed it with “more about that later.”  Well, ‘later’ has arrived as I think it’s just now hit home to me and my fellow organizers that June is going to be on us in the blink of an eye.  (Which is very strange to acknowledge as June will mean I’ve hit the half way mark of my service.)

One of my very good friends here, Sue, was sitting at the bar with all of us during PST – way back in July or August, so very long ago – and tossed out the observation that since this country was so very small compared to others where we could’ve been placed, we should just get together and walk through the damn thing, border to border – just for the heck of it!  Because we’re Americans and that’s what we American’s do!

Well, we all thought this was a jolly good idea (beers having been consumed, after all) but instead of just letting it die in the puddles on the table, we’ve nudged it along through the ensuing months and actually gave it some legs during our last training in September, when we held an interest group session to communicate the idea to the other volunteers, until now it has suddenly become bold enough to star as one of two main events recognizing the 20th Anniversary of Peace Corps Moldova.  Whew!

In a nutshell, two groups of volunteers – and, hopefully, lots of Moldovans – will be walking either a northern or southern route from June 15 – 30, meeting in Chisinau on the final day.  We will be holding events at each stop along the way to highlight the accomplishments of Peace Corps Moldova, to create visibility and excitement for volunteering in general, and to celebrate an active and healthy lifestyle. We will be sleeping under trees, on school room floors, in community centers (or with the pigs, cows, and chickens, for all we know,) as we are relying on the villages to put us up at night and provide us food after the day’s event.  It is in an excellent opportunity to broaden America’s visibility to those Moldovans who might not ever leave the intimate world of their small town and for us to get to know those who have been so hospitable and kind to Americans throughout our service here.  I am really excited about this (though I am not sure my diva knee will let me walk the entire 200-260 kilometers!)

I am collaborating with Sue and a Health Education PCV to steer the work on this project and have just volunteered to write the proposal for a PCPP grant.  Peace Corps Partnership Proposals allow volunteers to seek funding from organizations and individuals in America, on a tax-deductible basis, for projects that build capacity or transfer skills to host country nationals. Though I am not yet entirely sure if our project will meet the strict guidelines, I do hope that if it comes through many of you will consider making even a token contribution.  It is a way to create and sustain a bridge between my two lives and for all of you to collaborate with me in making a lasting impact here that will resonate long after I am gone…

More on this later!

I’d like you to meet Patience, the humble virtue

Fair warning: Not entirely unlike my others, but certainly to a greater degree, this blog is entirely self-involved and navel-focused.  If you generally read my postings while half asleep, this one will put you there in no time.  If you’re in a really good mood, you should probably put off reading it for another day.  If your bored already, it just might do you in.  There are no beautiful pictures or entertaining anecdotes to amuse you.  How’s that for putting off any potential readers?  But  of course, I’d appreciate the audience anyways….

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You know how it is when someone (usually a parent or spouse or sibling) tells you something that you feel like you already know and you kind of nod your head and simper, trying to look attentive and appreciative, but inside you’re saying:

Got it covered. I’m capable!

Okay, come on now, we both know I’ve been alive for more than two decades, for pete’s sake!

I know this already. I know this already. I know this already.

Really?  Do you imagine I’m that stupid?

I grew the ef’’n turnips this bloody truck is sending to market, give me a break!

or some other such permutation of narcissistic arrogance?  Such is the case with most of us potential PCVs who scan the provided literature, nod our heads sagely, and then proceed to jump up and down with enthusiasm and glee before eagerly putting pen to the dotted line.  Of course there will be frustrations and the need to adapt and periods of ambiguity and challenge, but it is all part and parcel of the grand adventure and the mind-altering journey and the uplifting opportunity to be of service and the blessing of subsuming humbly to a greater good….of course I can handle it!  I am Ghandi and Mother Theresa and Martin Luther King and Albert Schweitzer and Sargent Shriver all bundled up in one tidy little package, ready to be shipped overseas!

Yeah.  Let’s talk about that.

See, this the thing that I’ve come to believe about us Peace Corps Volunteers.  If you look real close, I bet you might find many of us (not all mind you, one can never generalize to that extent) to be hyper-inflated, self-engrossed, experience-greedy, over-achievers masquerading as retro-liberal, greater-good-minded, altruistic missionaries spreading peace and friendship. The Peace Corps is a relatively difficult organization to join, given the lack of motivational pay and impoverished living conditions that must be endured.  The big prize you get is the untarnished badge of courage. You immediately and effortlessly earn the gaping admiration of all of those back home who sing a chorus of wonder at your bravery and selflessness.  How can you do it, they ask? Leave friends and family and the comforts of home to strike out for the great (unwashed) unknown?  What a saintly soul you harbor in your humble breast!

And soon, you imagine, you will be in the position to gratify their approbation by sharing swashbuckling tales of humanitarian magnitude: how you single-handedly  assisted the overworked midwife delivering  a baby in the fly-specked hut; constructed stout sewers to port away disease-mongering  filth; funded innovative treatment plants to make the village water safe; plaited purses from gum wrappers to help domestic violence victims achieve economic independence; built schools out of mud and straw to educate the next generation and hospitals to treat the discarded and greenhouses to feed the hungry and windmills to power it all, and oh, by the way, taught English to would-be social entrepreneurs in your spare time, all the while knowing you were icing your resume and weaving a global network of potential partners and acquiring powerful contacts in embassies and international NGOs to assist your ultimate goal to travel the world and live in exotic locations on someone else’s dime.

Except when you can’t.  Because you haven’t done anything to merit even the smallest bragging rights that you assumed as your entitlement once you debarked the plane.

Ok, I probably sound cynical.  But you’d be surprised.  Or maybe you wouldn’t   Maybe it’s an unaccountable naivete that has heretofore blinded me to the self-aggrandizing ends that serve to motivate some of the best work done in this world.  Poftim.

Something inside me has always impelled me to achieve, at times without a larger purpose or vision, but always to prove that whatever I undertook I could accomplish well.  I don’t know if it was the oldest child syndrome, or a sublimated competitive drive that didn’t get expressed through sports, or just a preference for directed action as an occluding buffer against the persistent whispering of samsara, but I’ve prided myself on my ability to perform above average in most professional and educational circumstances, thereby cementing my sense of self-worth and bolstering other’s opinion of me. (Of course, I didn’t go to Harvard or work for Apple, so my means of testing myself were pretty confined.)  I didn’t expect to be seven months into this endeavor with not a damn thing to show for the time but a remedial ability to speak a provincial language and a healthy case of psoriasis. Here I am, an unremarkable thumbnail (in the immortal words of Sue!) on the Peace Corps’ global screen of achievements. There are many, many other (most, much younger, I might add) PCVs who are succeeding in ways that I’m not even close to touching at this point.  My resume looks pretty bland and the address book painfully thin.

At the end of December, my partner left her position with the organization where I was placed in August after my Pre-Service Training.  Because Peace Corps assigns volunteers to a partnership rather than an organization and because, for a variety of reasons, there was no alternate partner for me there, I had to leave, tail between my legs, along with her.   The time preceding this ignominious, inconclusive end had been fraught with frustration and inaction. Our hands were tied on so many levels that we faced the impending train wreck like helpless maidens forsaken on the rails by a faceless agent of doom.  Fortunately, I had a two week vacation scheduled just about that time which provided a needed (and very pleasurable) measure of distraction, but since the second week of January I have been sitting in my room, trying not to dwell on my ineffectiveness by watching movies, reading books, snacking more than I should, and avoiding YouTube videos that could be teaching me how to knit.  (This last activity just seemed to be too sad, launching me into full-fledged spinsterhood WAY before my time.)

The experienced PCV will tell you that winter is a period of hibernation in Moldova: from the beginning of December through mid-January, there are a steady series of holidays that mandate a great deal of eating, drinking, and dancing, but after that most Moldovans hunker down to wait out the cold and the snow. In contrast to your typical Americans, who greet the New Year with to-do lists, grandiose resolutions, new cookbooks and expensive gym memberships, Moldovans seem to accept Mother Nature’s cyclical guidelines and slow down their activity levels during these frigid months.  Hence, it is not the best time of year to go foraging for a new partner.

I have received much good advice from those who have been here a year or two longer than me.  “Slow down, take it easy, appreciate this time of reflection.  Let go of the compulsion to be so American, the need to do, do, do.  Learn to follow gracefully the seasons’ lead and relinquish frenetic energy to these meditative months of withdrawal and inactivity.  And this is very good advice.  (Remember that head nodding and simpering?)  Advice that I imagine will be much easier to apply once I have another year under my belt and can reflect back on a spring, summer, and fall replete with a small successes, challenges overcome, and the fruits of my labors gleaming, plump and robust, in the storehouse of memory.

I find that I am not productively managing the acres of empty hours stretching before me.  While part of the incentive for joining the Peace Corps, believe it or not, was the thought of those empty acres that could be cultivated with writing and journaling and blogging and researching publishing avenues for the next generation Eat, Pray Love that I intended to compose during my time here, the tillage period has proved to be never ending and the seeds of experience are slipping through my fingers like sand.  I can’t grasp onto anything tangible to prove my mettle or worth, have produced nothing remarkable or noteworthy, haven’t had an iota of lasting impact, and the friends that I made have scattered in the aftermath of the events that blasted me from my site.

Perhaps it is more that I feel guilty.  As if, like the proverbial grasshopper versus the industrious ant, I have somehow neglected to provide for my own nourishment during these lean times.  I am restless and unsettled and have a perennial churning in my gut.  The future is uncertain and the recent past a wobbly structure not capable of supporting my current anxieties.  Like those fraught filled moments when you teeter at the apex of the roller coaster before heading down, I realize that I put myself on this ride but at this very moment I can’t quite recall why I imagined it would be fun.

This experience is altering me in ways I didn’t consider but probably need.  While I am not one to steer my ship by someone else’s stars, I realize now that, after I have plotted my course of action, I typically seek the comfort of external validation before proceeding .   This time, for the first time – at 51 years old, no less – I find myself on my own and surprisingly lost at sea.  I joined the Peace Corps, received my standing ovation, and now the lights have dimmed and the audience departed and am left in an echoing auditorium to contemplate how minor role my role in this drama could turn out to be.

No one else, not even another PCV, can comprehend my extant situation clearly or advise me on the best course of action or whether action is even possible or necessary. All further lines and plot developments are shrouded in mystery, author unknown as of now.  We come into service by ourselves (excluding the married couples) and will need to make decisions and move forward – or sideways or backwards or downwards or not at all – on our own.  So this characteristic of mine to think about a problem from every angle, but then perform back up analysis through another’s viewpoint in order to most thoroughly anticipate and manage possible  repercussions and outcomes, is completely thwarted here. Plus, I am not able to assuage my need for confirmation of my decisions by others who can be counted on for support and hoorahs.

Seemingly out of the blue, though (but perhaps not,) in response to an incoherent whine about my befuddled mindscape, my brilliant pen pal offered me a bit of sage commentary (completely circumventing my argument above that no one can offer me relevant advice):

Maybe you can’t know ahead of time about any of it. Maybe the best thing can’t be figured out by you with what you know. Sometimes something brilliant comes along that we couldn’t have figured out ourselves, and in fact we might have shunned as a lesser choice. And it turns out that the universe, or whoever, knows more than we do. Are you able to let go, relax, and just see what happens? 

I find myself mired in circumstances that I don’t have much control over, but maybe that’s the point: these are circumstances I don’t have much control over.  I am not able to consume myself with planning and strategizing and plotting and thinking and being brilliantly proactive in anticipating every nuanced outcome, then parading my analysis before my peers for applause and approbation.  At this point all I can pretty much do is throw my hands up in the air and yield to the organ-unfurling plunge.  Hopefully, the ride will turn out to be as amazingly mind-blowing as I once was so certain it would be.  Meanwhile, my mental furniture is being forcibly rearranged and refurbished by concepts that I would never imagined entertaining previously.  Like age and experience doesn’t always equate to an advantage in any given circumstance.  Or that logic and reason can effectively inoculate one against unexpected fall outs.  That the virtue that develops from patience is not one of one of spiritual calmness enveloping frustrations in a soothing blankness and calming worries to sleep, but the protective, hide-like callous born of constant friction, irritation, and sometimes pain that allows you to endure without seeking surcease from the torture.

So the one blessed thing for me right now, I’ve suddenly realized, is that I have created this megaphone to scream through when I need to, this outlet for stultified activity, this navel-gazing blog – my somewhat ironic tribute to the third goal of Peace Corps: Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans by complaining.  And through that process I have received so much unexpected support, encouragement, empathy, and love from people back home that I feel like I have a virtual bridge I can walk across online anytime to seek out a hug when needed.  I am so blessed.  Not by what I’ve done, but by what I’ve received.

And maybe the Peace Corps experience, in the end, will prove to be an exercise in developing and formulating better Americans, both those that go and those who witness and encourage them – despite all the setbacks and disappointments and early terminations and unrealized expectations and unattained goals – from home.  Maybe it’s good to know and to experience the fact that we – dare I call us a land of hyper-inflated, self-engrossed, materially-driven, over achievers masquerading as the world’s superhero? – cannot and therefore should not attempt to make over other countries and peoples in our own rather distorted image.  Maybe this journey is about humility after all, about NOT succeeding, about being at the mercy of forces outside of our control and still doing one’s humble best to influence them for the better and smile during the process.  Perhaps I need to take a back seat and just shut up and enjoy the ride.

I certainly hope that I am providing some measure of insight into this journey to others whose bravery and courage is not set on a global stage, but is attained through less visible but no less remarkable endeavors closer to home.  My own process of self-discovery is revealing how thoroughly and completely American I am, through and through. And that is neither a wholly positive nor irretrievably negative attribute.  But it does color what I choose to attend to, the depth and volume of that attention, and what effect it may have on its object. With half my life already lived I realize that there are aspects of myself that I have never met – unexamined expectations, assumptions, limitations, and aspirations that might be better served with a dose of patience.  Teach me, Moldova.  I think I’m finally ready to let you drive.

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PS: And to all of you prospective volunteers out there reading this blog in hopes of getting an edge on what the future holds, let me just reiterate what you’ve already been told and probably passed over blithely a hundred times already (and will not absorb any better this time either, because you just can’t.) You won’t know what it’s like until you do it and you can’t prepare for it ahead of time because no one can describe the exact circumstances that are even now conspiring to thwart your thralldom to Peace Corps and undermine your determination to be THE best volunteer ever who never complains or sees anything but the positive and describes her 27 months of service as the nexus of all that she aspired to be and learn in this world during the press interview for her surprise, runaway bestseller.  But do it anyway.  And bookmark this posting, because after you have confronted and endured your own thousand foot drop I’d love to hear how scary/mind-altering/exhilarating/humbling/educational the ride proved to be.  Let’s compare notes and celebrate surviving the Peace Corps roller coaster!

 

Mirroring Moldova

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The crumbling, hazardous steps leading to a public square

Does Moldova make you sadder?  Does just being here cause one’s happiness index to plummet beyond rescue?  Bruce Hood would answer in the affirmative.  I am listening to his book The Self Illusion as I walk to and from work each day and it is giving me a somewhat undesirable perspective on how I may be chipping away at what I had previously thought to be my natural state of joy.

In line with Hume’s “bundle theory,” Hood states that decades of neurological research lends proof to the theory that the “me” inside my head is an ongoing,  illusory narrative concocted by the brain to establish a necessary focal point for the reception and organization of stimuli into coherent patterns for reciprocal behavior.  He describes an elegant metaphor of the “self” as the external mirroring of one’s cumulative inner experience of the world and the other “selves” we encounter, giving an oddly somatic testimony to the notion that ‘we are all one.’  To the degree that we have an impact on the people who are in direct relationship with us, or who benefit from our work, or buy our products, or listen to our songs, or live in our buildings, or abide by our laws, or respond to our ads, or slip on our tossed banana peel – etc., etc., etc., – then we are affecting and thereby shaping the formulation of other “selves” in our world, contributing to the reflection that we receive from them that thereby shapes us in turn.  Whew.  (Of course, reading the book will give you a much deeper appreciation of his argument.)

“The line between out there and in here is not as sharply defined as we think.”                                                Eric Weiner in The Geography of Bliss

 So what does this have to do with me and Moldova?  Well, here’s the thing.  A Dutch professor named Ruut Veenhoven , along with his colleagues at the World Database of Happiness (WDH,) has been collecting data for years on what makes us happy, what does not, and – interestingly – which nations are the happiest.  Not surprisingly, Moldova consistently scores near the very bottom of the index.  Lower, even, then some African countries that definitely have a lot more reasons to bitch.

The effects of decades of harsh winters
The effects of decades of harsh winters

In the Geography of Bliss, a book about his travels through some of the happiest countries in the WDH and one – Moldova – that decidedly is not, Weiner proffers a theory that Moldovans are more unhappy because they are in Europe’s backyard and inevitably compare themselves with countries like France, Italy, and Germany, where so many of their working adults flee to make money.  However, there is also the on-going legacy of the Soviet system, which has warped the very fabric of the nation.  And there is also the physicality of Moldova – the crumbling building, the frost eroded concrete, the rusting pipes, the ubiquitous trash.  There are very few public places that please the eye or gratify one’s craving to find order and harmony in one’s surroundings.

A typical apartment building
A typical apartment building

The chapter on Moldova was quite revelatory in its illustrative vignettes which capture those elusive experiences I have found so difficult to articulate.  Here, for example, is a brief exchange between Weiner and a hotel clerk which highlights the impenetrable, obstinate ennui that seems to have a stranglehold on the population:

I return to the hotel. My Semi-Luxe room is hot, very hot.   I call down to the front desk.

“Where is the air-conditioning?”

“Oh, no sir, there is no air-conditioning in the Semi-Luxe room. Only in the Luxe room.”

“Well, can I upgrade to a Luxe room?”

“No sir, that is not possible.”

“Can I get a fan?”

“No sir, that is not possible. But you are free to bring your own.”

Graffiti transcends borders
Graffiti transcends borders

Weiner even visits a group of Peace Corps volunteers, for whom he feels nothing but pity.  After all, as he astutely notes, “We can’t very well call it the US Bliss Corps, but that’s what it is: an attempt to remake the world in our own happy image.”  And indeed, this is one of the hardest things for me to accommodate to here. My own happiness sparkles a bit before fizzling out in the face of such pervasive doom and gloom.  It is difficult to find something – anything – that Moldovans are happy about and you can’t really blame them.  When you live in a country corrupted by nepotism, cronyism, and graft; where medical and legal degrees are purchased outright and passing grades are conferred on children of influential parents even when they don’t attend school; where prescriptions are purchased by those who have enough money to bid for a medical appointment in the first place; where only a portion of the international aid flowing in is doled out by the few who have established themselves as trustworthy merely because they speak English; when you live in a country that is a country in name only, but does not appear to generate a cohesive culture that binds people into a group identity that supersedes narrow-minded, short-term pursuits in favor of broad-based, mutually-beneficial reciprocity, you lose. Period.

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A public bench

For about the last month, it has become increasingly apparent to my partner that our center is in serious danger of losing its operational revenue after December 31. For reasons I won’t get into here, we have not been successful at finding new sources of funding.  My partner has been coming into my office the past few days and sitting in the chair opposite me, her eyes dull and ringed in dark circles, shoulders sagging, hands nervously fidgeting about her face and hair.

“Ce facem, Yvette?”  What do we do?

I don’t know.  I don’t know. “Nu știu.”

I am not the lucky talisman I was at the beginning.  Bit by bit, I feel myself succumbing to the demoralizing ennui.  I don’t know how to battle the forces that so relentlessly pound people down here. Of course, as an American and as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I keep taking this failure personally.  Why can’t I figure it out? Where is the magic formula that will make this tangled web of lunacy unravel into a logical thread of hope? Why can’t my relentless American optimism overcome this amorphous miasma of despair?  I hear myself telling her that she pursue her dream of moving to the United States – escape this country, find a better life for herself and her husband and kids.

And then I stop myself, horrified – what am I saying?  My country’s better than your country? How un-PC am I?

Pedestrians waiting to cross the street
Pedestrians waiting to cross the street

I think I’m ceding to the notion that the line between the outside and the inside is not as sharply defined as we like to think.  Although the metaphor of the stalwart individual shaking her fist at the world and turning the tides of fate may be heroic, it does not make room for the millions of people who want to live ordinary, peaceful, predictable, and – yes – mundane lives.  Not everyone yearns to be Joan of Ark.

Many western nations naively believe that by “liberating” people and then handing them a toolkit for democracy, we guarantee them future success and happiness. But it’s not that simple.  Democracy is predicated on the basis of people trusting in one another, on a shared culture that instills faith in process and creates points of entry into those processes for everyone. Moldovans, 20 years after leaving the Soviet Union, do not have that.  At one point in their conversation, Ruut Veenhoven observes to Eric Weiner, “The quality of society is more important than your place in that society.” The truth of those words rings clearer to me each and every day that I live here in Moldova.

Daily exchange rates advertised everywhere - what a grim reminder...
Daily exchange rates advertised everywhere – what a grim reminder…

I am trying, as best as possible, in all my interactions, to mirror back the innate optimism and belief in democratic process that being a product of American culture has instilled in me.  And I have met so many, many Moldovans who want to believe, who yearn for change.  But it certainly doesn’t help that many of the best of them are sucked out of the country by the promise of an easier life elsewhere. The changes that need to occur are not going to happen in one person’s lifetime.  They must be willing to fight for a legacy that will only be realized by their children, or their children’s children, or their grandchildren’s children.

And how many of us Americans have shown the willingness to do that nowadays?

Meanwhile, happiness comes in small doses, in conversations around the table with Nina, in watching the women work so lovingly with the kids at my center, in sharing a meal with new friends, in solo walks around the lake behind my house.  And, I must confess, in getting together with other PCVs, whose vibrant American souls continue to recharge my battery and create new energetic input to my “self.”

The point of hope...
The point of hope…

I appreciate my fellow citizens, body and soul, like never before.

Bless you, America and all you Peace Corps Volunteers here in Moldova…be the change you wish to see in the world!

*All photographs are courtesy of fellow PCV Britt Hill – no relation, though I would be happy to claim her.  She has a much better eye for detail than I do so I shamelessly stole them from her FB site.

Thanks Britt!!!

And the question is: why there, not here?

I hope I have been abundantly clear to all of you who have taken the time to leave a comment on one of my posts how much they are appreciated. Writing a blog is a little like standing up on stage (sitting at my desk) alone staring out into the blinding white lights that effectively erase the audience (the blinding white page on the monitor) and floating a monologue (pressing “publish”) that may or may not hit a resonant chord with my readers (comment/no comment.) Actually, I myself read many blogs that I think are wonderful but all too often I don’t take the time to comment as I’m not really sure I have anything pertinent to say. That’s bad etiquette on my part, given my first hand knowledge of what a boost it gives the writer to see that someone was moved enough to join the conversation.
Anyway, I received a comment on my last post – 9-5 – that posed a very incisive question, one that I’m pretty sure must have bounced through the minds of more than a few people who know me, but was never actually put to me in person: So why are you there providing volunteer services in a foreign land rather than here helping your own community/country/people? As the commenter truthfully pointed out, there are many poverty stricken, marginalized, under-served communities in the United States. And if all of us just focused on taking care of our own, perhaps there wouldn’t be the perceived need to fly halfway across the world to provide meaningful service to humanity?
This comment definitely made me sit back and go “hmmm.” Initially, I was impelled to react and, fingers poised above the keyboard, I sifted through the myriad arguments tumbling through my brain in an effort to decide which one to put first. But then I stopped. I realized that this was an important question that deserved thoughtful consideration, as (I confess) there have been more than a few times that I have asked myself the very same thing. So I’ve been mulling it over all day. And here’s where I’ve landed:
The Peace Corps’ mission has three simple goals:
1. Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
2. Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
3. Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

Perhaps because of their simplicity and clarity, these goals have not changed in the 51 years since the Peace Corps inception. They wholly contain the very essence of a volunteer’s service and manage to embody – for me, at least – the reason why our government (and we taxpayers) see fit to continue funding this seemingly idealistic enterprise through administrations of both persuasions and times of dearth as well as plenty. There is a method to this madness. Let me explain.

1. Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.

Yes, I highlighted that word for a reason. If a country or a people are ever going to progress beyond the perilous escarpment of hand-to-mouth survival, they must be able to realize the benefits of critical thinking.

“Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness.”*

Surprise, surprise: critical thinking is not a universal entitlement conferred on all people at the moment of their birth. Rather, it is a hard won skill, usually gained through many years of exposure to a broad range of circumstances and/or – for a lucky and infinitesimally small percentage of the world’s population – through enlightened public education. Despite what for many appears to be a dismal state of the public school system in the USA, we still do promote the value of critical thinking. One learns that by experiencing the stark contrast with educational institutions elsewhere (a nod to you Patty.) As expensive as it is increasingly becoming, an American university education is still a world-class vehicle for learning to think critically if one applies oneself firmly to that goal. And it is precisely that kind of training that poverty stricken, marginalized, under-served populations throughout the world desperately need.

I subscribe to ten or twelve Peace Corps Volunteer blogs; I drop in on at least that many from time to time. One universal theme that runs in common through them all is a general surprise/disbelief/incomprehension/frustration/sadness about the “superstitions” that dictate so much of their host communities’ decisions, choices, and development. Couple those with a pervasive lack of comprehensive schooling, the afflictions of diasporas, warfare, governmental instability, and disease and you have a set of circumstances that Americans have not had to deal with since the aftermath of the Civil War.

I am not denying that desperate people exist in the USA. But I will proffer the argument that they have easier, more immediate access to meaningful, long-term assistance: there are a multitude of investigators, journalists, educators, attorneys, laboratories, foundations, government agencies, research institutions, think tanks and charities that have the resources to at least posit resolutions for problems within our borders. That is not the case in many other countries where Peace Corps Volunteers serve because those aforementioned resolutions are most often the expression of critical thought, a skill which many of them sorely lack and determinedly seek.

The first goal speaks to our commitment to partner with interested countries (they have to ask for our assistance – we don’t invade or force ourselves upon them) in creating those resources which can help them help themselves. This is the quality that my commenter assumes that all peoples possess but which, in fact, they don’t. However impoverished various American communities, neighborhoods, or individuals might be, they have the distinctive, enviable quality of being American – a benefit whose worth we don’t usually recognize until it’s put into stark contrast with alternative nationalities. I left America in a state of perturbed disgust; I am beginning now to acknowledge and appreciate many aspects of its intrinsic value which I patently assumed to be a universal entitlement.

2. Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.

This is a loaded one. Really. Because many of us PCVs here in Moldova appreciate, having recently taken up residence in a former Soviet state, the implications of providing an alternative viewpoint to the one which was sanctioned and forced down Moldovans throats for many a decade. It is – literally – a battle between east and west to win the hearts and minds of a psychologically distressed population which has been traded back and forth like a pawn in a global chess game for centuries.

Have you ever really pondered the image of America that is most constantly, loudly, persistently, pervasively portrayed overseas? For starters, most everyone in Moldova thinks Americans are fat, gluttonous, greedy, obnoxious, loud, rich, lazy, surgically-enhanced pigs. Because that is what our media messages convey through all their various platforms: movies, television, magazines, advertisements, YouTube, games, Facebook, news and entertainment sites. We are not blanketing the world with love. Rather than creating bonds of similitude and friendship, we typically seed notions of competition and self-consciousness, which usually serve to distance people both from each other and themselves. We are not the caped-crusaders we like to picture ourselves to be. Actually, unfortunately, we have a distinctly evil grimace from most angles.

On top of that, we currently represent approximately 4.6% of the world’s population while consuming almost 25% of its energy. AND we export the inculcation of insatiability – we have it all and so the rest of the world should have it too. Never mind that there is not enough stuff (energy) to satisfy 6 billion individual desires for more meat and plastic and timber and gas and electricity and coal and steel and gold and caviar and diamonds and platinum and ……we could – and do, mind you – go on and on. We have fostered the concept that the world’s resources are infinite, rather than finite. We have role modeled wastefulness and ingratitude and greed. We have not paused even once to consider the larger implications of the “American dream.”

We may be heroic at home but increasingly, and unfortunately, we have squandered that reputation abroad. Considered as a portion of the nation’s economy, or of its federal expenditures, the U.S. is actually among the smallest donors of international aid among the world’s developed countries. Yet we boast the largest military expenditures by far, we have a president who has ordered the assassination of American citizens living abroad and we have yet to officially acknowledge the ravages of global warming, which are having far more detrimental effects on third world countries than on us.

Do you see why we might need friendly, altruistic ambassadors doing good deeds in foreign lands?

3. Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

Interestingly, one does not relinquish the title, or responsibilities, of being a Peace Corps Volunteer once service overseas concludes. I will be known as an “RPCV” or a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer for the remainder of my life. And I will be expected to continue my service – to a greater or lesser degree, the choice is mine – by mindfully promoting a better understanding of the country of Moldova and its people through talking about my experiences to other Americans (watch out world – you might find me somewhat tedious at social gatherings after this!)
Joking aside, it is truly unfortunate that most Americans have little experience of cultures outside of our own. It is why terrorists are so successful in inducing fear and our own government is able to slowly chip away at our privacy and civil rights in response. It is why the preponderance of people (myself included) who learned I was going to Moldova had to Google it to find out where it was. The numbers tell the story: Of the 308 million-plus citizens in the United States, only 30% have passports. And most of those passports are not being used to gain access to third world communities for extended periods, I’m pretty darn sure.

Every single blog I’ve read from current and past volunteers who have served in such “scary” countries as Afghanistan, Albania, Azerbaijan, Columbia, Iran, Libya, Nicaragua, Turkmenistan, and Uganda have all sung hallelujahs to the hospitality, generosity, warmth, and caring of the communities that hosted them. Our current interim Country Director, along with all serving PCVs, was just pulled out of Tunisia for safety and security reasons. Despite this, he said that his partners and agency staff were “regular people just like us” who abhorred the violence being perpetrated in their towns and neighborhoods. Just like every single American isn’t a gangster, not every single person born to the Muslim faith or a tyrannical government is a terrorist. We have to get beyond our incestuous self-righteousness and really see and feel in our bones that most people have the same wants, needs, desires, and emotions as us if we are all going to make it into the next century.

So there is one long-winded, but definitely pondered response to the question of why I have chosen to serve in the Peace Corps overseas at this point in my life.

And, as a sidebar, I do wish to point out that for 20 years – until I was forced out – I worked in the non-profit sector making substantially less (as my husband and father would tirelessly remind me) than I could have working in the corporate arena. I have done my part for some of the underserved people in my own community. Have you?

*A statement by Michael Scriven & Richard Paul for the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking Instruction

Life in Retrospect

Sunrise Great Bend Kansas

Last year at this time, Mike and I were in the middle of a cross country trip across America, an impetuous odyssey we embarked upon like a pair of draft horses suddenly finding themselves loosed from reins, harness, and dray.  We were giddy, light, unencumbered, reminiscent of nineteen, only this time we had a late model vehicle and plenty of cash to fuel the experience.  As I remember it, it was four months of almost uninterrupted bliss.  I loved sleeping in tent, having no kitchen to keep, no floors to scrub, no schedule to mind.  We were free to travel the little chicken scratch roadways off the main arteries whenever the mood would strike us or stay for an extra day in a particularly picturesque local on a whim.  We walked miles and miles of trails, listening to water run over rock and birds cry in bottomless sky.  We cooked under trees and brushed our teeth beside lakes and stood silently before Technicolor sunsets.  We met interesting characters, treated ourselves to expensive restaurant dinners once or twice, and spent countless quiet nights huddled in camp chairs watching movies on a computer perched atop an ice chest set between us.  We lived for a month in a creaky cottage perched behind the dunes of a tiny beach town on Chesapeake Bay.  I have a multitude of pictures from that trip and I keep returning to them again and again and again these days, longing for the gratuitous expanses of America that taunted us just beyond the windshield for a magic season in our lives.

Our tent in Shenandoah on this same day last year
Mike makes fire!

 

Why is life so much kinder to us in retrospect? How artfully it soothes us by softly tinting and blurring our memories, embellishing and erasing as needed to make the captured occasion coyly play to our looping hunger for dramatic fulfillment. Life seems fuller, grander, more satisfying in retrospect, whereas our daily life in the present often seems fraught with cotton balls and mush. The soporific of ennui is so pervasive, pernicious, and stultifying, it dulls our senses and makes now less preferable to then.  We don’t know how to engage our boredom, where to find its chokepoint, how to lay our fists about its bland face.  We only feel ourselves increasingly short of breath, narrowed down, pinned in, suddenly beige and unsatisfied.  And that’s when we clutch about spastically, searching for a lifeline somewhere amidst the photographs forever bobbing in our wake, little pincushion reminders that every once in awhile we are granted a reprieve, jolted alive and awake for a period of time when it all made sense and environment, emotion, and intellect were all knit together in a warm and recognizable pattern that comforts us to look upon later.

Pensacola west

I shored up some more of these life savers again during the last two weeks – capturing scenes and freezing impulsive actions that will serve as nourishment over the long, lonely months ahead.  I could not explain to you why people I met four months ago have become so large and significant in my life.  Perhaps because those photos of America are receding now on the horizon, despite my desperate attempts to anchor them vividly in my mindscape.  The human mind searches for purpose, endlessly trying to trace patterns, establish significance, imprint meaning into experience.  This is the mechanism of memory – the why of remembering one thing over another.  Perhaps it is also why the memory of something tends to be so much richer sometimes than the actual experience was when it occurred: it has the opportunity to soak in and establish connections with other memories and become embellished by subsequent experiences and tie together all the loose, unarticulated longings that reminiscing can evoke.

America may be out of reach for awhile, but it is good to know that other memories are being formed right where I am now.