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……

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The Airplane Episode

Every journey has its ending and – after visiting four major metropolises in three countries during seven days through two long train rides – I am ready to reclaim the hearth and be still for at least a couple of days by Saturday morning.  The penultimate leg of my return trip is a mere 75 minute jaunt from Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, to Chișinău, departing at 7:35pm, which should have had me opening the door to my apartment around 10:00 at the latest, blessed be.  In fact, I congratulate myself on the luck of living so close to so many desirable vacation destinations. Unlike my travel companion, I am not facing an 11-hour, ocean-spanning, six time zones change to make it home.  Why I failed to foresee the nebulous, eastern European factor inherent in my own equation, I cannot say.  Having lived here for over two years now, I should definitely be wiser.

It starts with the gate assignment: D5 flashing in bold orange neon on the overhead departure board. The Kiev airport is several times larger than I anticipated. With only an hour and some minutes between my arrival from Amsterdam and my scheduled departure, I do not want to take even the whiff of a chance of missing my flight. Peace Corps had been clear in allowing me to fly through Ukraine in the first place: Do not leave the airport under any condition.  I dutifully make my way through echoing corridors and double-backed turns to an overcrowded lounge space and wedge my way into a seat, displacing the bags of the woman next to me (gee, I see it’s a Louis Vitton, but it can sit on the floor more comfortably than I can, ma’am.)  The next time I glance at the clock it is 7:20 and a vague uneasiness slips into my bloodstream: shouldn’t we all be lining up? The small electronic sign above the departure kiosk has yet to display the flight info and there is no one manning the computer to ask. My feet begin to jiggle. I contemplate getting up to check the main departure board again, knowing that I’ll be gone a good five minutes during which time Ms. Vitton will be sure to erect another baggage fortress in my seat. I decide to wait. Around 7:30pm a rotation of Ukrainian, Russian, and Brit-accented English announcements inform the terminal that the flight scheduled for “Shisenow” (pronounced incorrectly, with a soft “chi” rather than the hard K) Moldova has been delayed.  We are now due to depart at 8:35. (I am only slightly concerned that the designated announcer for an international airline does not know how to pronounce the capital of a neighboring country.  After all, some Americans have been known to identify Australia as South Korea in man-on-the street interviews.)

As the minutes tick by I keep the kiosk in my right peripheral, waiting for the appearance of airline personnel to assure me that the flight is indeed occurring and preparations are being made for boarding.    By 8:17, when the kiosk sign is still displaying an ambiguous logo of detached wings on an empty blue background and with no signs of a human attendant below, I relinquish my seat to go recheck the main departure board.  Wow.  Good thing.  Because my flight is scheduled to depart in 13 minutes from Gate D10, 100 meters down the crowded corridor.

Trotting as best I am able swaddled in winter coat and heavy boots, I arrive at gate 10 to find my corrected flight info posted in crisp LCD above two uniformed attendants hunched over a computer screen and a 50 person queue waiting patiently to board.  Okay, this is more like it.  I exhale a sigh of relief, putting aside my irritation at the inexplicable omission of changed gate information in the flight delay announcement.  For the final stage of this trip, I have scheduled a driver, Igor, to pick me up at the airport in Chișinău and deliver me to my apartment in Strașeni some 40 kilometers away, an unfortunate (and expensive) necessity resultant of the lack of public transportation after 9:00pm.  At this point, I will be only slightly late by Moldovan standards.  I’ll slip him an extra 50, mentally calculating the amount of Moldovan lei I stashed in my wallet ten days ago.

Alas, 8:30pm comes and goes and the line remains immobile.  The attendants are still huddled over their computer screen and no one else seems concerned.  Patience, I tell myself.  During my Peace Corps service I have learned that, as a general rule, we Americans tend to be a lot more wired and anxious than other breeds.  Moldovans, especially, continually amaze me with the degree of placid acceptance they evince in any situation which calls for indefinite waiting.  Everyone in the immediate vicinity is either looking bored or absorbed with an electronic device; no one is twitching uncontrollably, much less storming the gate. I quell the inexorable wavelets of worry lapping at the edges of my studied calm.  I can do this, I think. Even two hours late is not that bad.  He’ll wait for me.  And in this small lifeboat of untested hope I am forced to place my trust, having no phone service since I neglected to set my mobile to roaming before leaving Moldova.  (I have all but forgotten that the seemingly ubiquitous ability to instantly communicate across borders depends on specific technological details and not my every whim.)

Finally, around 8:50, without any prefatory announcement (pity those who might be off in the lavatory,) the door to the boarding ramp swings open and the line begins to move.  Okay, it is happening; I’ll be home by midnight. Yay, yay, yay!  I conjure up my waiting bed, fluffy snow adrift outside the windows, the welcome prospect of a lazy Sunday ahead.  Perhaps there’ll be a cup of peppermint tea before the oblivion of restorative sleep. I’ve been awake since 4:45 this morning, in transit since 9:30; I’m more than ready for this to be over.  Willing the muscles in my neck to unclench, I let the human tide sweep my forward into the fuselage.  I take my seat while trying to parse the staticky transmission of the attendant’s English, a mellifluous rhythm of carefully modulated cadences that are, unfortunately, infected by the sort of vaguely Frenchified accent my girlfriends and I used to affect in discotheques during the early 80’s. All announcements must be made in triplicate, with mumbled English accorded the least time and annunciation, it seems. I think I hear our unfortunate delay attributed to ‘technical difficulties,’ however, I can’t be sure.  It may have been that the plane we have just boarded was late getting to the terminal.  But, after all the jostling of passengers juggling overlarge suitcases into overhead bins and skirmishes over usurped seats has finally abated, the cabin lights dim and the engines thrum to life.  We are actually moving, backing away from the terminal gate, when a horrid screeching noise ensues. My god, are those the brakes?  Because they sound multitudinously worse than any teenager’s mechanically-neglected beater car I’ve ever had the misfortune to ride in.  WTF?  Our all to brief momentum abruptly ceases. Lights remain dimmed. The minutes tick by.  Five, six, eight, twelve, fifteen.  I try to stifle obsessive time checking by shutting off my phone. Flight attendant?  Where are you with your informative, albeit largely unintelligible, update?

The growing minutes of silent stasis are abruptly punctuated by the bespectacled face of the young woman in front of me popping above her seat back.  “It’s snowing,” she informs me, nodding her head sagely.  I’m not quite sure what to make of this declaration.  Surely, a dusting of snow doesn’t preclude a 747 from taking off?  I may be from California but I know I’d remember hearing if JFK or O’Hare shut down for the winter, for god’s sake.  She interprets my blank face as an invitation to initiate; we commence small talk: Elena’s a Moldovan attending school and working in New York “for a long time now.”  Specific inquiries about her job and where she is attending school are deftly shunted aside.  Instead, she marvels that I am living by choice in Moldova. “Don’t you miss America?” she asks.  “I could never come back to Moldova.”  Diaspora personified.   Her English is quick and effortless, American-accented, littered with slang, her attire modish western European, lacking the obsessive attention to color-matched cosmetics and accessories that defines the typical Moldovan female.  And she has a globally-enabled T-Mobile phone that she is now using to contact her dad at the Chișinău airport.  She is my new best friend.  I consult my useless phone’s contacts and locate Igor’s mobile number.  Elena gets a hold of him after she hangs up with her dad; he’s still at the Chișinău airport and wants to know if he should wait.  Umm, YES.  How the hell else am I going to get home???

Meanwhile. the man sitting next to me has leafed obsessively through all the reading material in the seat back pocket, including the laminated safety precautions card he peruses ever more intently while loud hydraulic noises issue from somewhere outside.  I look past him out the window to see flashing lights and men in reflective coveralls swarming the tarmac around the plane like busy worker ants attending their supine queen.  My neighbor turns to me with desperate eyes.  ” Ei repara avionul?” (They repair the plane?)  “Eu sper așa,” I reply. (I hope so.) Elena hears me and emerges again from behind her seat back. “I think it  better that we don’t fly on this the plane.” Luckily, this is in English; I’m beginning to suspect that my seatmate is not a seasoned flyer.  He commences picking fretfully at the sticker admonishing passengers in four languages to keep their seat belts fastened in flight.   I marvel briefly at the anomaly: I’ve never seen a Moldovan display anxiety.   Passengers are now sharing foodstuffs and retrieving items from overhead bins.  The aisles begin to fill.  (Sit down people, I want to scream, or we may never leave!) Still no sign of any flight attendant.  Perhaps all the Ukrainian Airways employees have left the plane?  If this was America, angry business travelers armed with brief cases would be banging on the pilot’s door and demanding explanations and refunds. Instead, we seem to be devolving into the first stages of an impromptu masa.  I check the time.  9:45.  I’m now almost two hours late and at least a couple more from arrival. Igor, stay with me, please, I pray silently.

I am beginning to fantasize myself as Liz Lemon confronting Matt Damon on the 30 Rock airplane episode when the overhead speakers crackle to life. The first announcement is made is made in Ukrainian/Russian (I can’t tell the difference) and immediately people are standing, retrieving luggage and donning coats, and yelling out to family across the aisles .  I follow suit, unable to hear the tacked-on, much abbreviated English version that is inaudible beneath all the noise. Elena, noting my apparent confusion, graciously informs me that we are debarking the plane.  She appears to have a talent for translating the obvious, but I am grateful she thinks to include me.   Apparently the plane is so broken they can’t even pull it back round to the building; we are forced to cram a planeload of passengers, complete with carry-ons, into a shuttle bus for the short ride back to what appears to be a fire escape funneling us up three rickety flights of swaying metal stairs back into the now largely vacant terminal.  10:08.  If there has been any explanation for what happened to the plane or what our future might hold, it was not translated into English.  I look around for Elena, whom I lost in the mad dash between plane and shuttle bus.  If circumstances become desperate I may need to importune her dad to drop me at a hotel in Chișinău, ratcheting up my projected return trip expenses threefold.  I spot her across the lounge, phone glued to ear. I hope it isn’t Igor, notifying me of his resignation. I realize I haven’t eaten since I left Amsterdam more than 12 hours ago; I set off in search of sustenance.

Apparently I am now several steps into the nether side of wrong as evidenced by the dearth of foodstuffs available for purchase in a space just slightly smaller than your average American mall.  The lonely open counter offers cappuccino and two orphaned containers of rice pudding huddled together on an otherwise empty refrigerator shelf.  I buy one, and the cappuccino I know I will regret if my head is lucky enough to hit a pillow tonight.  It is my small gauntlet flung to fate: Ha! Prove that I’ll even have an opportunity to sleep before Monday!  I eat the pudding while keeping a nervous eye on Elena across the way.  I can’t afford to lose her at this juncture; if I end up stuck in Kiev I will need a translator for sure.  The airwaves remain ominously silent.  No news is good news?  So far, this has not proved to be the case.  I am scraping the last vestiges of pudding from the container when a sudden swirl of thronged movement arises.  We are boarding!  (How did everyone know? What sort of weird, telepathic ability do these people have that I am missing?)  I abandon my empty pudding container and half-finished cappuccino on a nearby table, all vestiges of consumer responsibility abandoned in my desperation to join the thrust of people clustering about the departure kiosk.  Notions of queuing seem antiquated at this point. Been there, done that already and what has it got me?

Some twenty minutes hence we are stuffed like brooding hens nursing bruised expectations in our respective seats.  Dare we remove our coats? Buckle ourselves in? Reinvest in time schedules? In what may be  a misguided attempt to thwart the fates, the attendant doesn’t even bother with the English version of the standard departure announcement while miming the required safety  instructions in triple time at the front of the plane.  The engines rumble and the lights dim before she finishes with the oxygen mask.  She needn’t have bothered rushing.  We sit for another 22 minutes (I time it) on the tarmac without moving. My seatmate starts in on the new safety sticker on the seat back in front of him, pleading “eu sunt enervat”  (‘I am nervous’ – what is it with these people and the patently obvious?) when our eyes meet.  I begin to sense the creepy outlines of my future life, a truncated, post-Soviet version of Groundhog Day, endlessly traversing the Kafka-esque corridors linking cramped, ambiguous waiting rooms with hopeless flights of fancy up disintegrating stairs.  I feel myself sinking into a bottomless region of dank despair.  The only shred I of thankfulness I can salvage is the dubious decision I made to check my 22 pound backpack. At least I won’t have to haul it back and forth with me forever.  As I contemplate the prospect of borrowing Elena’s phone to notify my family that I will, in fact, never return from Peace Corps service, the wheels begin to grind in a (just) slightly less horrible fashion than they did two hours ago and our flight to Moldova commences.  I don’t care if the brakes don’t work.  We don’t need them for lift off anyway.

***

I find that I’ve gained but a brief momentum towards closure once we hit the tarmac again, however, where I soon find myself skirting the outside flanks of approximately 300 hundred other passengers from two previous flights waiting for luggage to manifest on the 50-foot long, humping strip of dental floss that comprises the baggage claim function at Chișinău airport.  (This, of course, is SO typically Moldovan. In summer of 2014 a much-vaunted project to upgrade the airport was launched with the premier of a “VIP Lounge” that usurped much of the already ill-furnished common waiting area and inserted an expanded duty-free shop for all those (NOT) well-heeled tourists departing the country.  Could we pay some attention to basic infrastructure, folks, and less to surface pretensions of prosperity?)  The clock on the wall reads 12:14.  I fish my phone out of my purse and send off an optimistic text to Igor: Be out soon – just waiting for my bag!  His texted reply is unintelligible, a mishmash of clustered consonants that appear more Germanic than Romanian.  Perhaps his fingers are frozen to the steering wheel?  Or maybe I’ve just roused him from deep sleep at home in his bed.  I put my phone away and decide not to think about it, though I do lock in on Elena’s blond head bobbing amidst the crowd, just in case.   Utilizing that uncanny ability for picking up on the the obvious, she somehow senses my apprehension and pushes through the throng to stand next to me.  I can’t help it, I love her.  This is exactly what they mean by Moldovan hospitality.  Our brief exchange over airport seats has bonded us; I am family.  Glimmers of hope are sparking. Perhaps this night will not end badly and I will get to see my American family, too, again someday.  By the time my bright red bag lumbers into view, I have managed, ugly American that I am, to scrape together sufficient confidence to grab it and push my way forcefully towards the exit, completely neglecting to say goodbye to my would-be translator.  I silently vow to pay it forward someday to another bewildered tourist lost and confounded by LAX.  Right now I am longing, with a deep and physical ache in my gut, for my bed.

One frantic phone call and I locate Igor outside the front doors of the airport building (has he been standing outside in the freezing cold for three and a half hours? Please say no.) He relieves me of my backpack and motions for me to follow.  We exchange the obligatory pleasantries while wending our way briskly through a conglomeration of taxis and late-model luxury SUVs vying for precious curb space (the gaping economic chasm on parade.)  At this point in its ‘restructuring’ the airport is sans parking lot, forcing Igor to park out on the frontage road some 200 yards away.  I scramble to keep pace; this man does not want to be doing this, I can tell.  (Maybe I am catching a little of that sixth sense….)  Attempting to bypass the crowd, Igor scurries over from the asphalt roadway to the ice-slicked path alongside it.  Stupidly fooled by his seemingly effortless agility I plunge after him and immediately land – hard – on right hand and knee, then hip and and elbow.  I try to get up quickly, before he notices, but mummifying layers of winter clothing and quads that have atrophied from 10 hours of sitting thwart me. I call out weakly, unsure whether I merit any more tolerance from this man.  Thankfully, he stops, trudges back  and reaches out his free arm to help me.  Two steps and I’m on my ass again. This time his sigh is audible, probably because I am quickly losing the ability to marshal my own muscles; he has to all but haul me to my feet. We return to the ranks of the madding crowd.  I surreptitiously check my throbbing right hand – the only injured body part currently visible – for shredded skin but it is too damn dark to tell if the wet is from blood or snow.  I soldier on, focusing on Igor’s squared shoulders and determined stride.  I will get home, I will get home, I will get home, I chant under my breath to the rhythm of my plodding feet, breaking into a trot every third or fourth step to keep up.

***

Once ensconced in the front seat of the car, I allow myself to entertain the notion that this saga might be finally drawing to a close.  There remains just one more hurdle to face: the gate in the fence that encircles the perimeter of the senior center where I live. More than once I have returned late at night (though never this late) to encounter a padlocked gate and an unattended phone that rings in the residential unit, heedless of my plight.   On one unfortunate occasion I attempted to climb over the spiked wrought iron fence in question only to be caught by the crotch of my favorite pair of jeans. Luckily my husband was with me and maneuvered me (with great effort) loose, otherwise I would’ve hung there helpless until morning.  I debated mentioning this possibility to Igor but after listening to protracted word-for-word reprisals of the many telephoned inquiries he fielded from his family during the past three hours regarding his estimated return home, I decided that silence might be the better part of discretion at this point.  Around 11pm they had finally given up on him and eaten dinner, he reports. At midnight they shut off the lights and went to bed. He might just dump me out on Stefan Cel Mare if he surmises that what was supposed to have been an hour-long pick-up job might end up extending into Sunday breakfast.

I try my damnedest to keep up a light banter in Romanian while simultaneously filtering through a list of fall back options if said gate is, indeed, locked.  I had stupidly forgotten to send an email on Friday to the staff at the day care center, reminding them to be sure to alert the residential nurse to not lock the gate. Despite having several conversations with various employees prior to my departure, I harbor little faith in their memories.  Moldovans don’t do future tense.  The kilometers crawled by while my anxiety waxes and wanes along with my steadily eroding coherence.  I am dead on my feet – or my butt, as the case may be.  Can I just refuse to vacate his car?  Why have I not cultivated a friend who could offer me a bed in Strașeni? My failures as a Peace Corps Volunteer threaten to engulf me in this moment of utter and abject need. So this is what one truly achieves through successful integration: a place to lay one’s head when the final hurdle cannot be surmounted.    I decide to think about this tomorrow, as I am beginning to respond unthinkingly to Igor with the scraps of guttural Dutch I picked up over the past three days.  The dashboard clock reads 1:21am.  There is just no more energy left for worry.

***

As anticlimactic a denouement though it ultimately might be, I will happily report that, some fifteen minutes later, the gate swings easily inward at Igor’s touch; I was too scared to try it and so fumbled with the car door latch until he had already had it opened.  I dig in my purse and retrieve the entire amount of bani I had stashed – 500 lei – and press it into his hands.  He does not even pretend to protest for form’s sake (our previously agreed upon fee had been 350.)  We both know, even if we do not say it aloud, that I have leaned quite heavily upon his graciousness this evening.  For the second time this night I give fervent thanks for the goodness of Moldovans as I stumble off down the driveway towards a much-anticipated bed.  Lights out 2:05am, cappuccino be damned.

Hiho, hiho, it’s off to spread the glow…

Because this is my 3rd and final year (I think!) as a volunteer, I want to post more regularly about the experience of Peace Corps service in general and being stationed in Moldova in particular. Here is my first effort towards that end…..

***

I get up in the morning and drink my coffee while spot-checking the Internet for breaking news (making sure, for example, that California has not fallen into the ocean nor a fleet of inter-galactic aliens shown up in Ohio. Mostly I seek secondary reassurance of the continued existence of family and friends.) I then trek down a dirt road and over pocked pavement – nobly striving to keep my dress shoes clean and my ankles intact – to the bus station where I join a herd of mostly silent, grim- faced Moldovans in a rutiera that we must wait to fill before beginning the 20 kilometer commute into Chisinau. (In the morning this doesn’t take too long.) For the first 1-2 kilometers, we stop every 100 meters or so to pick up more passengers, who jam shoulder to shoulder in the aisle as the seats are all filled. Throughout the drive, we stop every 4-5 kilometers to take on or let off passengers at the intervening factories, village crossroads, or bus stations. (This becomes a Jenga-like exercise in compression and agility, as some of those exiting are all the way at the back.) At the perimeter of the capital, people begin debarking at various corners and traffic lights. All told, it takes about 25 minutes to traverse the 20 kilometers (about 12.5 miles.) This is public transportation in Moldova. While it is ubiquitous throughout the country, it is geared to accommodate the village, not the nation.

This explains why the parking lot of the 9-floor modern glass building where I work needs only accommodate twenty-odd cars. (I’ve never seen more than five parked at any given time.) What I still haven’t parsed is why there are two official looking male attendants stationed behind an eye-level counter just inside the marble-tied lobby who vet the visitors attempting to access the bank of elevators behind them. The first few times I entered the building they stopped me as I passed to ask where I was going. “Novateca. Etajul opt,” I say in Romanian, attempting to blend in as just another worker bee and not some lost American seeking a public bathroom. After a week or so they allowed me to pass by with a brief nod of the head. If this is some form of security, I am not sure of its effectiveness as it seems to rely entirely on an internal assessment of the visitor’s demeanor, clothing, and sense of purpose; there is no request for ID or even to sign some sort of log.

Having gained access to said bank of elevators, a posted sign inveighs the visitor to please not press all four buttons along the wall in an attempt to summon a free elevator. I wonder if the need for this admonishment bespeaks the higher percentage of foreigners visiting and working in this building: Moldovans, for the most part, are not an impatient people. They know how to wait. Once inside the elevator, the (American) visitor is reminded that, though it is clean and relatively modern in appearance, it was built to accommodate a different architecture and body type than those to which we are accustomed. Their floor space is about 3 feet by 3 feet, allowing comfortable passage for one or two people, with any number above that becoming more physically familiar with each other than one might necessarily want. I tend to wait for the chance to board alone then press the “close door” button rapidly and repeatedly to avoid uncomfortable intimacy.

Exiting the elevator on the 8th floor, however, I find that I have been teleported instantaneously to the USA. Granted, the floor to ceiling windows in the vestibule look out over the cement facades, tangled wires, and faded billboards of downtown Chișinău, but one need only turn to one’s left – offices of IREX – or right – Novateca – to enter into a brightly-lit, plush-carpeted version of corporate America. Here, the receptionist is male, young, and exceedingly friendly. He greets you warmly, inquires after your well-being, and offers you refreshments. You immediately note the 72″ video monitor mounted on the wall which presents a continuous loop of Novateca project activities, beneficiaries, and locations in Moldova. Walking down the hallways, one catches sight of a spacious common work area with networked printers and softy humming copiers; a welcoming kitchen and a small break area, both complete with bottled water (hot and cold,) coffee maker, microwave, dishes, and refrigerator; a tastefully appointed conference room furnished with ceiling-mounted projector and screen; individual offices sporting ergonomic desk chairs and 27″ monitors; and the kind of scrupulously clean, tiled bathrooms equipped with fully-enclosed stalls, large mirrors, soap dispensers, air fresheners, and hot-air hand dryers that one typically encounters in only the nicest hotels and restaurants in Chișinău.

As a new volunteer assigned to Novateca, I am provided the same training and information and materials as an employee. Within my first hour I have office supplies and a laptop, am offered a desk telephone (no thank you!) and access to the shared Google Drive (please!) The office manager reviews administrative procedures and the job responsibilities of each employees. Every person I meet is wreathed in smiles, gives unabashed eye contact, and reaches out to shake my hand. With the exception of the director, who wears a standard collared shirt and colorful tie, the common threads are business casual – no stiletto heels, bejeweled corsets, silky cravats or peg-legged trousers in sight. Staff meetings begin promptly at 1:30pm every Monday. A printed agenda is distributed and facilitated by a rotating chair, the minutes are meticulously recorded by a rotating secretary. The conversation is spiked with good-natured teasing and an abundance of laughter. Office hours appear to be long – everyone is at work when I arrive between 8:30 and 9:00 and still there when I depart sometime between 4:00 and 5:00, but no one appears overly anxious to leave. Often, I receive emails at home late into the evening.

So what, you might be thinking at this juncture? What you describe here could be one of a thousand – nay, million – workplaces in the United States. Why is this particular office worthy of note merely because of its happenstance location in the Republic of Moldova? Glad you asked. Let’s segue for a moment’s reflection on the question of the chicken or the egg.

***

For a brief time in my twenties I pursued a Master’s degree in American Studies. While circumstance did not allow for completion, the two semesters I spent in that interdisciplinary program represented – by far – the most thought-provoking period of my academic career. Granted, the focus of the texts and discussions may have been American, but the broader context of myth, symbolism, art, literature, law, history, environment, etc., and their relationship to culture, behavior, mood, and social interaction formed the basis of our explorations and theses. From the design and production elements that led to the globalization of McDonald’s to the influence of architecture on community and education, to the audio-visual cues that evoke particular emotions, we became attuned to those aspects of our daily experience and environment that were constantly, insidiuously, relentlessly manipulating and shaping our sense of being in the world. We are simultaneously stimulating and reacting to the information that feeds our brains; we are “american” because the particular data environment our senses are subjected to is largely a feedback loop of our common cultural values, beliefs, and aspirations. Here the chicken and the egg become hopelessy entwined: the discipline of cultural studies examines, but never fully answers, the question of how and why cultures form and what influences them to change.

It is precisely this which piques my curiosity about how international development efforts, experienced from the microcosm of Novateca’s office in particular, might contribute to a shift in their host-country employees’ experience of being in the world and thus, slowly but irrevocably, alter the national culture. I venture to address this topic now, only after 29 months of living here, because I feel it has taken that amount of time to have had a fairly representative exposure to various workplaces and attitudes related to work, from personal experience and that of Moldovan, American, and other foreign-born colleagues. Here is my theory.

***

The people that flock to non-profit work, and perhaps the international development arena in particular, tend to be overtly optimistic and infectiously idealistic. One of the best chapters of Peace Corps, for me, was being shoved into a group of strangers in Philadelphia a little more than two years ago that – within a matter of months – morphed into a close-knit tribe of like-minded crusaders trading intimate details of hygeine, humiliation, and hubris. It was the tribulations and triumphs of our shared experience that bouyed me through many a dark night of self-doubt.

One of the Health Educator Peace Corps Volunteers posted this to our group Facebook page the other day:

I sat in on a homeroom lesson with the fifth graders. The topic was “Limiting Your Wishes!” I’ve been mulling it over a lot ever since because I can’t imagine, socially, a US teacher standing in front of class and saying, “Tamp it down kids, because there are just some things that you’ll never be able to have, do, or be. Ever. Now let’s talk about lowering those expectations for forty-five minutes.” It would be a nigh-sacrilegious affront to the American Dream.

I wonder if his observation evokes a similar gut reaction from you: the stupendous disservice an authority figure does when she attempts to define or curtail the wiilingness to imagine change. My desire to refute that brand of discouragement distills the kernel of difference that I seek to make through my Peace Corps service and the best of what I believe development efforts actually accomplish in any given country. When a group of driven, compassionate, and energized people come together to work towards a goal, their belief in their ability to effect change is infectious. They validate and reinforce the significance of having a dream, a vision – a compelling notion that the way things are doesn’t have to be the way things are. Sure, Americans might be more adept at owning this characteristic – look at the mythic particulars of our history and how they resonate with the dynamic of change. Many of our forebears were courageous/adventurous/desperate fortune seekers who left all that was familiar and routine to inhabit a better life beyond the known horizon. Horatio Alger-type stories amplify that notion of not ceding to circumstance or misfortune: those who try long and hard enough can create the life of their dreams. The most enduring symbol of our nation stands 151 feet tall, outwardly facing, holding aloft a beckoning torch for those ready to make the leap. We are the “Land of Opportunity,” the place where dreams can be made true.

But that doesn’t mean we hold exclusive rights to hope, faith, and hard work. There are many other nationally-identified organizations and missions (Médecins Sans Frontières comes to mind) that inspire others to adopt a ‘can do’ attitude, but once infected they become their own agents of change. (We may not always agree about the dreams they wish to pursue, but hey – it isn’t just about us, now, is it?) I am not naive; I do realize that far too many big development and aid projects have ulterior motives and (sometimes not so) hidden agendas. In a world of free trade agreements and international investment banking and sweatshop labor and resource depletion, there is bound to be subtext to most flashy headlines. But that doesn’t mean that passionate people with persistent intentions of realizing different tomorrows aren’t hard at work every day within the organizations implementing those projects and thousands of others.

I see the pleasant and welcoming physical atmosphere of the Novateca office as an externality of the attitude that propels its mission. People are valued here. Mood is relevant. Environment expresses thoughts and beliefs about relationship and comfort and care.

I listened to a podcast recently that discussed the merits of what is termed “warm-glow giving,” a form of ‘impure’ altruism described by James Andreoni back in 1989 that postulates one reason why people act and/or give charitably. ‘Pure’ altruism is the notion that one will do for or give to others without any consideration for self, while impure altruism, conversely, is ‘tainted’ by the positive feeling, or ‘warm-glow,’ that the giver receives as a direct result of the charitable act. Well, really, who cares? If someone experiences an intrinsic reward from helping another person, then I would venture to say that he is probably more likely to help again – and again and again and again, right? My current role with Novateca allows me to both facilitate and witness the contagious fever of idealism. I am still learning about the various systemic obstacles, economic disincentives, and cultural mores that make altering the prevalent perceptions of libraries and librarians in Moldovan so challenging. I will admit that almost everyone outside of Novateca that I engage in discussion on this topic has more bad news to share. But that has become my focused mission in this endeavor – to help spread the warm-glow influenza, if you will. Working towards a common goal that is geared toward helping ameliorate a problem or lift up a people from poverty or give a community greater access to health, education, and well-being or bring peace to a region or turn archaic book depositories into vibrant centers of knowledge access and sharing tends to make people happier, more invested in their job, more likely to enjoy the hours spent among their co-workers, participants and beneficiaries. The more people that are brought on board the warm-glow ship, the faster the whole world sails toward that distant horizon where they way things are doesn’t have to be the way things are and kids won’t be admonished to curb their enthusiasm.

I am very lucky to have this particular opportunity during my 3rd year of service here. I regret that the enthusiasm and energy that radiates from my Novateca co-workers – both American and Moldovan – is not the predominant attitude within all non-profit organizations and public instutitions within this country. But it is gaining ground, bit by bit, partnership, PCV, FLEX exchange student, Work & Travel youth, emigrant worker at a time. Globalization spreads the good as well the bad.

Hiho!

 

 

 

 

Corpses, roses, red lipstick

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

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

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

***

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

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

Here’s how it goes*:

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

 

On Marriage

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

–  Kahlil Gibran “On Marriage”

 

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

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

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

 ***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

 

The Long and Winding Road

“There is a myth, sometimes widespread, that a person need only do inner work…that a man is entirely responsible for his own problems; and that to cure himself, he need only change himself…. The fact is, a person is so formed by his surroundings that his state of harmony depends entirely on his harmony with his surroundings.”                                                Christopher Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building

The dirt road that winds from my living quarters into the town center is roughly a quarter of a mile long and probably the most unpleasant aspect of my daily life.  It is dusty in the heat, muddy in the rain, and treacherous with black ice during the winter.  During particularly heavy storms it becomes a river of loose rock and debris that can be a foot deep in some places. It is not a stretch, by any means, to say that scheduling the activities of my day is predicated largely by the specific condition of the road outside my door: the more unpleasant the journey looks to be, the less likely I am to make it.

However, the icing on the cake is not the road itself, but the trash dump that it skirts just around the corner from my house.  To call it an eyesore fails to accord it the true multi-sensory, aesthetically-offensive, soul-sucking status it attains.  Continually ravaged by rodents and dogs, perennially abuzz with flies and wasps, arrayed in a neon rainbow of tattered plastic and mouldering paper whose color palettes seem to have been mined from a bad acid trip, it sits sulkily putrefying amid the elements less than three feet from the road’s edge.  You smell it before you see it; the odor seeps into the folds of your clothes, clings to your nose hairs, coats your skin and stubbornly trails you long after you have left the heap behind.

***

I have to concentrate on not looking at it as I pass by because it angers me on such a visceral level, setting off a chain reaction of recrimination and blame that can blacken my mood long after the trash has been physically left behind.

It goes like this:

Why in the world can’t this neighborhood get together and buy a dumpster to hold their collective refuse so it won’t be accessible to the elements, the rodents and the dogs that roam the vicinity? (Of course, then how would the dogs eat – but that’s another chain reaction entirely…) There are countless two story villas on this road being slowly but inexorably constructed by remittances from family members working in other countries who seek to match the lifestyles they encounter there.  Every day, almost as many BMWs, Mercedes, Audis and Escalades whizz by me as litter the roads of southern California. Every other teen on the rutiera fiddles with her iPhone, or clutches her D&B bag, or reads on a Kindle while we bump over asphalt so pockmarked one wonders if it may have been bombed by an errant drone.   There appears to be no shortage of cash to satisfy individual appetites in many circumstances, but seemingly no funds, nor any will or desire, for any type of community-betterment project.

Then I remember that these appetites are quite deliberately cultivated, manipulated, and whetted by those very same corporate concerns whose un-booked externalities in the form of plastic bags, aluminum cans, cartons, crates, cardboard, and paper constitute the bulk of the materials feeding the midden on my road. but no – it doesn’t stop there, it gets even worse as I go deeper, folks.

***

I hearken back to my trip to Guatemala in 2012, walking beside a brilliant friend who spent two years living alongside the indigenous population helping them form a school for their children out of sticks and mud and determination.  I was bothered, immensely, by the amount of trash that filled the river ravines in the village.  I asked her about it – why it was there, what could be done, how she tolerated it.

She replied that it was the symbol of everything that stymied her about trying to help build a different sort of life for the disadvantaged in this world.  Thirty, forty years ago these people lived closer to the land, had their own farms and garden plots , grew most everything they needed and traded for what they couldn’t cultivate. But then, almost simultaneously (coinki-dink? Hmmm, I think not) large agricultural conglomerates bought up their land and began monoculture farming, exporting produce and inexorably cornering people into supplementing their diets with the relatively cheap and available Doritos and Pepsis and Snickers and fried pork rinds from the corner markets run by the families who no longer had income or staples from their land.

The people, of course, being so recently exiled from the natural occurring, unmaintained beauty that had heretofore surrounded them were disconcerted by the refuse that  was suddenly piling up in heaps everywhere, but attempts to collect and dispose of it only stranded them before the seemingly insurmountable obstacles of how?  who? where? There was no agency to build roads, no trucks to travel those roads, no money to pay people to drive the trucks, collect or haul the trash and no place to put it if they did.  So the trash piles up in the ravines until the seasonal floods come and wash it all out to the ocean where it flows into the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a floating accumulation of trash the size of Texas that swirls and gyres with the currents outside of anyone’s purview.

Well, didn’t that make me feel all better.

***

There is no one to blame but everyone, more or less.  I consume and generate trash, everyday, only here it is not conveniently swept from my awareness by a union-scale worker in an automated machine who absolves me of guilt for all the detritus that feeding, cleaning, furnishing, adorning, and entertaining my ‘self’ creates.

I remember once in my life being taken to the dump by my father, who probably needed to dispose of a mattress or some construction material or an old appliance.  I was horrified. First, by the miasma that enveloped us a half mile out, then by the sight of those veritable mountains of trash which loomed into view, cranes and other indecipherable machinery hovering about their perimeters clutching great loads of plastic and food and tree limbs and clothing and car parts all mixed in together amid grinding gears and circling birds and clouds of flies and dust curtains.  I gagged and gagged and ended up swallowing my own vomit, not wanting to add one piece to the ferment bubbling around me.  Of course, I have conveniently filed away the fervent vow I made then to find a way to meaningfully reduce my waste while seeking a way to convince others to do the same.  It is so much easier to just keep buying, unwrapping, and tossing mindlessly.

So perhaps that’s what really angers me about having to pass this garbage heap day after day after day. It will not let me forget that every single solitary piece of plastic; every garbage bag; every carton; every length of foil; every battery, can of paint, container of hairspray or detergent or peanut butter; every granola bar wrapper, empty pen casing, and broken cassette vomiting tape;  all the broken (and too easily replaced) curling irons, blow dryers, toasters, waffle makers, crock pots, frying pans, blenders; every discarded pair of holey sneakers,  bleach stained blue jeans, worn out socks; each and every used toothbrush, toothpaste tube, strip of dental floss, empty mascara, dried out lip gloss – ad nauseum, etc., etc., etc. – all of it still exists, somewhere, and will for many, many years after I do not.

***

Somewhere along the line, responsibility has become disconnected from activity, as if we’re able to enjoy a pleasurable ‘cause’ without an attendant, oft times deleterious, effect.  We encourage production and consumption and first world lifestyles with our foreign aid dollars, our glamorized advertisements, our iconic status symbols and our willingness to saturate markets with goods that local infrastructures have no mechanisms for processing once they are discarded.

We are so adept at generating externalities – residual detritus that collects in our human wake, evidencing lifestyles that are powered by consumption, (why must the economy continually grow to be healthy?) which we personally do not need to worry about recycling or repurposing or permanently dismantling.  And we tend to take for granted the sub-system of sewers and power grids and water mains and transit networks that support that consumption, leaving little evidence behind.

Who can really blame the Moldovans for desiring the same goods that people in the EU or the United States or Canada enjoy with such fervor?  Who can fault the Guatemalans for satisfying hungry children’s bellies with the cheap and tasty snack foods that line the shelves of the local bodegas?  They have all the toys without having the ability to build the walls and raise the roof and carpet the floor of the playroom.

So this is my question, so elegantly posed by the quote that headed this piece: which comes first, the unhappiness or the garbage?  Do we consume and discard because we’re unhappy or do our mounting externalities actually end up fomenting the gnawing, existential unhappiness that, down the line, results in the sense of despair and distaste which we attempt to assuage by consuming even more?

I can’t help feeling if that garbage heap was gone, my environment would be so much more enjoyable, which would positively affect my mood and make my daily life here much more agreeable.   I can’t help thinking that Moldovans, as a whole, would have more hope and dreams for their future, and perhaps remain in their own country, if their neighborhoods were cleared of garbage, paved with smooth asphalt, furnished with sidewalks and pleasant open-air spaces for people to gather in community.

Meanwhile, I open the cellophane wrapper of my coffee and retrieve the carton of creamer from the refrigerator for my morning cup of joe….

 

Life IS Full of Heroism

I must confess it was disheartening for me to visit NPR’s web page today and learn that George Zimmerman had been acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin (by a six-woman jury, no less) not because I was hungry after some kind of revenge in a situation where the legality and justifications for Zimmerman’s actions are so hotly contested, but because of what seems to be an increasingly prevalent fear percolating below the surface of so many Americans’ interactions with each other during the course of daily life.

The verdict prompted a lively debate on NPR’s website, generating more than 400 comments at the time of this writing.  The top-rated comment on the story was this one by B Free:

“One thing I don’t understand is what was the young man supposed to do when approached by an armed guy on the side of the road? Black, white, whatever, if a guy with no obvious authority stops anybody on the side of the road in an accusatory manner, exactly what could they say to put them at ease?”

Responses included observations like this one, from commenter Brian Watkins:

“Since the guy was twice his age… maybe a “Hello, how are you tonight sir?”, “just on my way home, is everything ok for you? is your car ok? you need some help with a tire?” … that’s the SAFEST things to SAY. Then when confronted, respectfully chat. I don’t know… those are the best things I can come up with.”

 To which I say, poftim. Barring the obvious elephant in the room – that Zimmerman was armed with a GUN and his demeanor was confrontational – I do believe that simple pleasantries go a long way toward easing awkward social situations.  In most uncomfortable circumstances, I find that a smile does much better than a growl.  However, here is what Watkins goes on to observe:

“America is scared all the time, so everyone is a threat to each other. This is the difficulty we have to live with being a diverse country, but regressing to simple pleasantries is the safest thing to do. To prevent this from happening to more youth, I advise all to stay closer to home and not be out when it gets too dark. It’s dangerous anyhow… it’s harder to identify people at night.”

To which all I can say is, wow.  Americans are basically scary people whom one should be afraid to encounter after dark, so hole up in your homes in order to be safe?  And this is a consequence – a ‘difficulty” – of living in a diverse country? And we need to “regress” to pleasantries in order not to be shot walking home from the neighborhood convenience store?

Is this what it’s come to?

Coincidentally, I was talking with another PCV just this morning about a recent vacation she took with her mom to several European countries.  Her mom suffered a mishap on a bike in Croatia and a local eating at an outdoor café saw it happen and came to their assistance.  He offered to drive my friend to a nearby pharmacy to help her purchase some first aid supplies; she gratefully accepted.  Her mom chastised her later, warning her that the guy might have had ill intentions of rape, robbery, and other mayhem and that my friend was foolhardy for trusting a veritable stranger.  On another occasion, they found themselves hopelessly lost in a Parisian suburb. Despite her mother’s fierce objections, my friend stopped to ask directions of a group of young men gathered on the street, who proceeded to get in their own car and gallantly lead them through the confusing maze of streets and back out onto the main highway.

She and I reflected on an integral lesson which usually occurs to most travelers who have spent some time out in the world; most people are not harboring an inherent desire to hurt you. In fact, many, many people will help you, begrudgingly or not, when asked. Travel in foreign countries often involves getting lost, or needing assistance with language or purchases, or just finding the best spot to eat in town.  To get the most out of the experience sometimes requires putting your trust in a stranger.

How have so many Americans lost this ability to see others as potential allies rather than threats?  And especially in our own neighborhoods?

I have commented on this blog before how increasingly important I am finding the second and third goals of Peace Corps service to be: 2) helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served, and 3) helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.   I feel like my daily interactions with Moldovans and other visitors to this country are ending up to be much more meaningful and impactful than the professional skills or work experience I bring.

It was with no small measure of pride that we posted this observation made by a young Moldovan who walked the entire southern route of Turul Moldovei:

“I think that volunteerism is important, and I talked to some people about volunteering and they said that this thing in Moldova has been lost and now American Volunteers help us to understand that we can give the community help that brings us pleasure to help them. I liked very much to be a volunteer, I really get a lot of pleasure, pleasure to have fun, pleasure to work, pleasure to give happiness.

I want to be a volunteer and know when Turul Moldovei ended I am trying to do more.”

Living where I do, at an internationally sponsored NGO that hosts many volunteers from European countries, I have the pleasure of meeting diverse people who use their own vacation time and funds to come to Moldova to help strangers.  For the past two weeks there have been three young women from the Netherlands here, aged 18 to 28, who have gone into the homes of house-bound elderly to empty buckets of feces and bottles of urine, scrub down cockroach infested kitchens, haul water from wells, air out mattresses and blankets, sweep mud-encrusted floors, massage arthritic feet, and then shed tears of joy to have had the honor to do so.

What if, instead, the lesson they learned was to stay close to home, to distrust diversity, or to ‘regress to pleasantries’ to keep safe?

My primary desire in sharing my experiences here is to provide a small window on a faraway place, a country most Americans (and Europeans, it turns out) have never heard of.  I hope my voice can find a place among the incessant fear-mongering that hammers away at our trust, at our empathy, our vulnerability, our ideas about the strangers we meet along the way.

Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is: many persons strive for high ideals and everywhere life is full of heroism.”

Desiderata

Amen.