First impressions

The ubiquitous Stephan Cel Mare, beloved hero of Moldova

This past weekend I cleared the final, obscuring hurdle in this protracted journey from my past and familiar life into a great unknown.  Starting in February of 2011, I have spent months wondering about the location, people, and organizations that would fill my life and delineate my experience for the twenty-seven months of my Peace Corps service.  The journey to Hîncește on Saturday lifted the final veil.

Let me say first that actually making the journey all on my own was a HUGE success for me (you have to celebrate the little stuff, folks!)   I took the familiar route into Chisinau, but then had to navigate my way through the piața – the vast outdoor vendor mart where one can obtain anything from chicken feet to pirated DVDs to Chanel knockoffs – and find a rutiera serving a route which I had never taken to get me another six or seven kilometers to the Gara de Sud where I would board a trolley bus to Hîncește.  I was able to communicate in Romanian enough to ask someone for directions and to be notified when we reached the station.  The trolley bus was parked right in front of the station when I arrived – lucky me.

Hîncește mayoral office

I arrived in Hîncește and hour and half early, so I decided to try to find the organization that is sponsoring me – Pasarea Albastra – on my own.  Mysteriously, I headed in exactly the right direction, even though it was uphill and around a long and sweeping corner, to find myself standing in front of the closed up building – come on, it is Sunday, Yvette – within ten minutes.  I then had to call the woman, Ana Vioara, who speaks no English and will be my work partner to explain who and where I was.  Within five minutes she joined me on the sidewalk.

Ana Vioara, my work partner at Pasarea Albastra

 She then took me inside and showed me around.  It’s a bright and cheerful place, newly built or refurbished (couldn’t quite make out which) and opened for use last December.  It certainly rivals any day care center in the US that I’ve visited.  She made me tea and brought out a plate of cookies, however, we soon realized that my limited language capabilities were putting a serious damper on the party.  While Moldovans are generally much more comfortable with prolonged silences that most Americans, I think Ana was a bit nervous and wanting to make a good impression so it pained me greatly not to be able to converse with her.  Periodically she would roll forth a rushing river of sentences from which I could only wishfully pluck a scarce smattering of familiar nouns and strangely conjugated verbs (damn those reflexive pronouns!)   All I could truthfully respond was “Îmi pare rau, nu ințeleg.”  (Sorry, I don’t understand.)    We hadn’t even finished our tea before she suggested we move on to Nina’s house so she could introduce me to my new mama gazda. Really, I think she was looking for reinforcements in her effort to hold up one end of a dialogue.

A surprising characteristic of Moldovan architecture is that one cannot judge the building by its cover.  So many of them here are crumbling artifacts of the Soviet era, hulking cement block monsters moldering in weedy lots, framed in scraggly trees and festooned with ribbons of clothesline.  It was exactly one of these that Ana led me to, wending her way up the eroded asphalt that served as parking lot, driveway, sidewalk and playground around the back of the building.  There, the harsh outlines were softened by a pleasant little hillock of trees and bushes nestled up against the building.   Nina has added an “office” to her apartment (in Moldova most people own, rather than rent or lease, their living quarters)  so there is an actual separate entrance used by visiting clients giving entry into an extra space attached to her bedroom.  And the interior was a refreshing and pleasant contrast to the dismal exterior, markedly upgraded and very modern.

Moldovans seem to take greater pride than most Americans of similar – or even better – economic circumstances in furnishing and decorating their living spaces.  All the furniture I’ve run across here is sturdy and finely-upholstered in good fabric; bathrooms and kitchens are tiled in ceramic or stone with substantial bathtubs that one could actually stretch out in; cabinets are crafted with heavy wood, solid hinges and decorative blown glass; the floors are of inlaid wood, individually fitted and highly polished; carpet pile is heavy, soft and brilliantly hued.  It is far more tasteful and better made than the plaster board, spray-painted, hastily assembled Target/Ikea breed of furnishings that is slowly encroaching homes across America.  And it definitely counters the depressing vistas of their cityscapes.

Nina’s apartment is much smaller than the house in which I am currently residing in Stauceni.  And there is no garden – boo hoo.  I get the feeling that she is quite consumed with making money, building her client base, and scouting out potential new pyramiding opportunities.  Although she was somewhat shy around me, she did manage to haul out the Avon catalogue to peruse with me page by page and posed not-so-subtle questions regarding my Peace Corps income and potential revenue from the husband back in the States.  I think she sees me not only as a potential consumer of products, but as a conduit to a whole new gathering of female resources.  I could tell she was more than a little disappointed at the obvious absence of cosmetics applied upon my person.  This will be a much different relationship, I think, than the one I enjoy with my current mama gazda.   We shall see.

New Nina

Cîinea Cîntea (The Dogs Sing)


I don’t know what songs they might sing for Christmas around here, but there is no such thing as a silent night in Stauceni.  First of all, let me say that there isn’t much night to speak of anyway: it doesn’t get dark-dark until after 10pm and the sky is light enough to read by at 4:15am (I know, because I’ve done it.)  Because I don’t sleep very well unless it’s really dark (I can’t even stand a light on in the next room,) I’d really like to sleep through the relatively short period of night that occurs here in Moldova during the summertime.

Not so, I’m afraid, because each night the dogs must sing their opera.

I have not mentioned the dogs here yet, mostly because their living conditions really sadden me.  Though it isn’t as bad as other countries I’ve visited, there is still a profound difference in the way they are treated compared to dogs in the US.  Basically, there are a multitude of strays  everywhere that forage the trash, streets, and fields for food and  then there are those kept chained up in people’s yards and fed disparately according to their owners’ temperaments.  There are a few that seem to be kept as pets, i.e., allowed to roam their owners’ yards freely (NEVER inside the house) but amongst us volunteers only two out of nine of our families have one like that.  Almost every house in the village, though, has a dog chained up near the front door.  Ostensibly, they are supposed to serve as sentries.  But when they bark at every person that passes by, I’m not sure how effective they could be, as one becomes inured quickly to their warnings during the day time.

Note “during the daytime.”  Now let’s talk about night time:

Every night I’ve been in Moldova, I am invariably woken up sometime between 2:00 and 3:00am by the dogs (sometimes it’s the roosters, too, but I’ll leave that for another day.)  Sometimes it’s just one dog, sometimes it’s two or three, at times it seems to be all the dogs in Stauceni.  They bark in tandem, they bark duets, they crescendo, they solo, they bark a call and bark in response.  I lie awake until dawn at times waiting for them to shut the fuck up – or for some irritated owner to yell at their own dog, at the very least.  No.  No one else seems to mind.  Or perhaps they sleep through it, I don’t know.  I know most of us volunteers don’t.  We’ll meet up in class bleary eyed and nod at each other knowingly: “The dogs again…did you hear them…oh I heard them…damn dogs….I hate dogs.”

Except I don’t.  I really love dogs and am missing my own more than I expected.  (I spent a lot of time with her the past six months or so when she was my only company most days.) So last night as I lay there again listening to the chorus and trying not to let evil thoughts of slaughter creep into mind, suddenly an awareness sifted softly into my sleepy brain: they are singing to each other, I thought.  These dogs that spend their whole lives chained up in yards, never allowed to roam, cavort, or run, always circling the same four foot enclosure, never able to sniff or greet or play with their own kind, they are lonely.  In the silence of the night they call out to each other, sing for each other, tell stories amongst themselves about the meager contents of their days.  Perhaps the strays join in and relate the vagaries of their existence – the difficulty of finding food, the discomfort of the hot sun and cold rain and blustering wind when there is no shelter to be found.  Their songs are permeated with frustration and yearning and sadness and grief.  At least that’s what I was hearing at 3:30am in the never-silent night.

This is the first time I’ve seen Nina pet Pirate.  It made me so happy.  Though he has been chained up in a corner of the yard during my stay, she does feed him regularly and well. (I give him meat from my lunch sometimes, when Nina isn’t home.)  But this is not always the case for some dogs.  Other volunteers have related stories of dogs chained up at houses under construction where they sometimes have no water and appear to be starving, like the owners are trying to make them fierce and dangerous. (And who is stupid enough to come near a chained up, starving German Sheppard??? Really, I just don’t see the point.)

On a happier note, Nina and her male suitor (she refuses to even CONSIDER his persistent proposals) sing often for me.  This is one thing that’s very different about Moldovans.  After our meal is finished, very  often we’ll sit in silence (finally – silence!) for minutes at a time, just looking around, listening to the birds sing, the wind blow, the children play out in the street.  Occasionally, with no apparent prompt, Nina or Ilea will begin humming or foot tapping, and then begin a duet melodious and sweet.  Sometimes they sing to each other, sometimes they sing to me.  Sometimes they just sing.  The songs are often melancholy and bittersweet.  Even though they’re in Russian or Romanian, I can always tell by the tone what emotion the song is conveying.

Just like with the dogs…


Moldovan medicine

Those of you who have seen me in the last year know that I have become a HUGE fan of Vibram Five Fingers footwear.  In fact, “Those Toe Shoes” are all I wore during the last year in the USA.  And I have confirmed what I swore by at the time – they are the cure for back and knee problems caused by modern shoes.  I stopped wearing my Vibram’s during my initial weeks in Moldova, not wanting to stand out or cause undue concern in my village that some alien visitor had ported in to conduct genomic splicing experiments on their feet.  Boy, have I paid the price.

My left knee began aching dully a week or so ago, progressing – after a two mile hike in heeled sandals through downtown Chisinau a couple of days ago – into full blown pain.  I’ve been downing aspirin like candy and contemplating suicide before I recalled my lifesaving Vibrams (three pair) tucked into the side pocket of a suitcase.  I have sworn off shoes for as long as I can get away with it and lined up my lovely toe shoes for immediate implementation.  Between them and Nina’s garden pharmacopeia, I should be just fine.

What? Nina has a pharmacy???  (I can see a few ears pricking up and sense a few of you quivering…)  Actually, amongst her many and varied interests, she seems to know quite a bit about “natural” remedies.  I’ve already blogged about the raspberry masks; additionally there have been teas, and soups, and herbal rinses.  Last night, I got the leaf wrap.

After smearing my knee with honey, she covered it with a very large green leaf from a tree in her garden.  Though I asked her twice what it was, I can’t remember the name.  Then, the leafy knee was wrapped by an ace bandage, which was then all firmly bound up by a large dish cloth.  Then I was sent to bed.  Or at least to lie down (I promptly fell asleep.)  When I got up the next morning, the swelling had gone down noticably and the pain had decreased. We will wrap up again tonight and hope that Moldovan medicine keeps working along with the Vibram’s.

And now a big shout out to my angel in America – Robinmarie!  Received a package from her today in training – the COD manager brought it to our cluster site from the PC office.  I felt just like a soldier in Afghanistan: everyone gathered around me, longing for a taste of America, something to remind them of home. I’m the first one to receive a package here so I had lots of hands helping me open the box and had to shoo everyone away from the goodies inside.  (Although the box of Girl Scout cookies didn’t survive the crowd…)

I have a new friend – Sophie – who will be joining me on my adventure.  I’ve taught her a few words in Romanian already but she’s surprisingly shy about trying them out in company.  Ah well, I know how she feels…

So – I know it’s HUGELY expensive to send things here, but it really does make a difference.  It’s like being at summer camp for the first time and getting a letter from your mom.  You want to hold it and turn it over in your hands and smell the contents because you know that it was once held by someone dear to you and you ache to see their face or hear their voice or hold their hand.  I do fine most days, but I can sink myself into a bit of the blues if I dwell on home too much.  I think about all of you, probably too much.

Thanks Robinmarie for being the angel you are!  And you, too, Bart.  I received two of your postcards today along with the package.  Your poetry continues to bring beauty and inspiration.

A beautiful meditation

Sylvia Plath

I ran across this on Brain Pickings today:

I love people. Everybody. I love them, I think, as a stamp collector loves his collection. Every story, every incident, every bit of conversation is raw material for me. My love’s not impersonal yet not wholly subjective either. I would like to be everyone, a cripple, a dying man, a whore, and then come back to write about my thoughts, my emotions, as that person.* But I am not omniscient. I have to live my life, and it is the only one I’ll ever have. And you cannot regard your own life with objective curiosity all the time…

Sylvia Plath was 18 years old when she wrote that in her journal.  What a beautiful meditation on resiliency, curiousity, and embracing life whole heartedly.  It inspires me.

Light my fire

A park in central Chisinau

It’s funny, today I felt like I had this breakthrough to another level, just when I was starting to feel a little depressed about my seeming lack of progress in language acquisition and enculturation.  It started with Diana, my LTI, praising me effusively in our check in session.  She said I reminded her of her own mother, who lives in the northern part of Moldova and she doesn’t get to see that often.  I am enthusiastic and determined, just like her mother, she said.  It’s good to have me in class, she said, because it makes her feel like she is an effective teacher and that she has a connection with her mother so far away.  She actually grabbed my hand and squeezed it (and she’s not a demonstrative person.)  She said that I am learning at a fast pace and I should be speaking Romanian comfortably before I realize it.

Which may have been just the spark I needed to light my confidence.  I came home and started stringing random sentences together for Nina, even though I was hesitant about my grammar and pronunciation.  I just kept running through the tenses and conjugation and gender/plural combinations until I found the right one.  Soon enough, Nina and I were having little conversations.  Sure they were episodic and halted mid-topic when she exceeded my vocabulary, but at least there was a back and forth going on that I could sustain for four or five sentences.  IT FELT FANTASTIC.  Really.  Like I was a toddler uttering my first grammatically correct statement and my mom was making noises I could understand.  And then a breeze started blowing and the sweaty film that has stuck to my skin like saran wrap for the last week was whisked away and the birds were singing and the leaves were rustling on the trees and I finally felt myself relax into my body and just be present.  It was the very first moment that I stopped feeling like a complete stranger in a strange land and had the first breath of settling in.

Nina’s Spa


At this point in the Peace Corps adventure, the two things predominant in the trainee’s daily experience are language classes and his or her host family interactions.  Just because I find my host mom (mama mea gazda) to be one of the more interesting people I’ve met so far, let me tell you a little more about her.

Niona braiding garlic from her garden

Nina, as far as I can tell, is not a typical Moldovan woman.  She is sixty-one, but could easily pass for being in her late-forties or very early fifties.  She spends most of her day in her garden or tending a neighbor’s who is currently in Germany.  As such, she is quite strong and fit – no flabby triceps or sagging chest on her.  She has not worn make-up in my presence, though I do see a few sticks of eyeliner, one lipstick, and a tube of mascara in her bathroom (I spy.)  No foundation – she doesn’t need it.

On several occasions she has tried, rather animatedly, to communicate her former profession, which I finally figured out was as an administrator of a medical aesthetic clinic.  Maybe women came there for facials and dietary consultations?  She certainly seems to know a lot about massage, acupressure, nutrition and the like.  (In the food department, I feel incredibly fortunate to have been placed with Nina.  Many of the other trainees are eating Westernized, store-bought food or are fed quite a bit of meat, dairy products, bread, and white rice along with their vegetables.  While I do get a very thin chicken breast most every day and she does keep a loaf of brown bread on the table, the majority of our meals have been composed of herbs and vegetables from the garden and/or whole grains like buckwheat or oatmeal.)

In the host family survey I completed for the Peace Corps prior to coming to Moldova, I indicated that I had been juicing for the past few months and had lost some weight.  I told them that I was worried about gaining it back and would really like to be placed with a family that avoided fatty or processed foods.  Well, I think this may have been conveyed to Nina as she seems to have taken on a personal mission to transform me before I leave her house.

The other night as I was struggling to conjugate the horrid verb “to have,” she appeared in my room wrapped in a towel with a bowlful of mashed up zmeură (raspberries) and motioned for me to follow her into the bathroom.  With an unintelligible (for me) stream of Limba Română as our soundtrack, she had me remove my shirt (I kept the bra on) and proceeded to slather us both with the raspberry/cream/honey/olive oil concoction.  With our arms, hands, necks, chests, and faces covered in the pink slop, we stood in the bathroom, arms in the air, and I listened to her chatter away at me in words I dearly hope to understand soon.  This was quite a comical experience to have with someone I only met a week ago and with whom I can barely communicate.  This was another, very tactical briefing in cross cultural exchange.  The thought of my mother conducting this exercise with some UCI exchange student from China or Korea about makes my head explode.

Admittedly, not my best look….

After we rinsed, we returned to me room where Nina very enthusiastically demonstrated for me her impressive limberness and agility.  She performed a series of calisthenics and pilates-type stretches that I’m quite sure would have challenged my 26 year old daughter.  Needless to say, I demurred from joining her in this activity.  She seems determined, however, to enlist me in some form of exercise soon.  I’m not quite sure where she gets the stamina, given her workload in the garden, kitchen, and around the house.  Luckily for me (and this has been a very mixed blessing, believe me) it has apparently been too hot for her to challenge me to another “gymnastica” duel.  It’s supposed to be in the high 90’s this week, so for now I’ve been granted a reprieve…

A Day in the Life

My bed

After a steamy, humid night where I awake every two hours or so to mop my drenched face and neck, I rise in the morning to brush my teeth, arrange my hair, and take the (very steep) stairs down to the kitchen.  There, Nina has already prepared my breakfast, which has included such varied items as a garden salad, a bowl of cherries and bread, or oatmeal. I feel a bit like a princess, as she serves me and insists I start eating while she bustles about the kitchen.   Usually she joins me after a couple of minutes, but sometimes she’s already eaten and she just keeps me company during my repast.  Which felt a bit awkward the first couple of times, but I’m starting to get used to it.  The thing is, Moldovans don’t see the need or understand the desire for “being alone.”  Their word for loneliness and alone are the same; people just hang out together, even if they don’t talk or engage in the same activity.  There is quite a lot of culture training around this issue for us volunteers and how to effectively integrate into our host families without having to sacrifice our “weird” American desire for privacy.

My desk

I then make the short walk to school by myself, attempting to be careful not to look or smile at people passing.  This is another “weird” American trait; Moldovans do not seek to engage passersby with generic pleasantries; greetings and smiles are strictly reserved for friends.  In fact, a single woman smiling to a man on the street is considered to have made an inappropriate invitation.  This has been extremely difficult for me to remember and I probably already have a reputation in this town.  Oh well.  I won’t be staying here long. I usually get to school a half hour early and hang out with the other PCTs who are there.  This group of people – my language training class – is supposedly the one that all PCV’s become closest to during their service, as we end up spending the most time together.  There are a couple of them that I feel closer to at this point: Patty is 26 (Rhiannon’s age) and I am around her mother’s age, so we have been drawn to each other for obvious reasons. She is very introspective and concerned with her relationship with her host family, which has had its ups and downs.  We talk a lot about fitting in versus being one’s self.  Georgiana is gregarious and the accessorizing queen; she comes from a family of lawyers and is very analytical, yet relaxed and funny.

Our language class consists of endless repetitions and phony dialogues, which can get tedious but does, admittedly, expose us to the sounds and rhythm of the language.  It has only been four days, but I am just beginning to get a feel for the words as separate entities when they are strung together seamlessly in a sentence.  I must say it is a beautiful language – the common description is that hearing Romanian is like listening to an Italian speaking Russian.   Even when the Moldovans speak English, they retain a lilting cadence to their verbiage that is quite captivating.  The hardest thing is trying to make sounds that our American ear can’t even hear.  They will repeat the singular and plural form of a word, for example, that sound exactly the same to all of us Americans.  We have them repeat it over and over again, but to our dismay we cannot distinguish between the two.  Perhaps we have just not formed the necessary neural pathways?  Anyway, it remains a mystery we can’t seem to resolve.  We just say it the same way in both cases and they accept our efforts.

I then walk home for lunch which, again, is all laid out for me on the kitchen table and typically consists of cucumbers, parsley, dill, butter lettuce, tomatoes, a thin piece of chicken, cherries, raspberries, and perhaps some placinta for dessert.  Nina keeps up a running monologue which I cannot respond to, but, again, helps train my ear to the structure and sound of Romanian.  After checking my email and Facebook messages (I am an Internet addict, I now realize), I walk back to school; up a VERY steep hill.  I am getting some exercise. Yesterday and today, in the afternoon, we had a class with all of the Community Organizational Development Volunteers (there are 20 of us total.)  They take the rutierai over from a neighboring village, which we will do next week and I AM NOT looking forward to; it’s already in the 90’s and it climbs into the triple digits, easily, aboard that sweat box.  Anyway.  We went over our Participatory Analysis for Community Analysis (PACA) which is basically a set of tools for how to do development within the Peace Corps environment.

Without getting into excruciating detail, let me just say the Peace Corps is an agency that has actually learned something in its fifty years of operation.  They have very smart strategies for integrating volunteers into a community without us coming off as overbearing experts who have all the answers, first, by selecting the right people from the start .  It is SO refreshing to be working with a group of really smart individuals; I don’t think I truly appreciated the rigorous selection process of the Peace Corps before now.  Everyone I’m working with is very savvy – not just book smart, but “people smart;” they seem to know how to collaborate, listen, work within a team environment, and build on each other’s strengths.  I don’t feel the need to step in and be “the leader” because everyone is a leader, yet no one is so self aggrandizing that they need to grab the spotlight.  It is a joy to study and learn alongside them.  Lessons move quickly and everyone “gets it” right off the bat; there is no having to go back and repeat or explain to a slower contingent.

Today, after class, we went to a neighborhood bar.  It’s sort of an open, covered patio where they play “house music” and stout mugs of beer are just about a buck ten.  (Good you didn’t come, huh?  You know who you are…) Tipping is not an ordinary practice but we do leave 2-5% just because we’re such a loud and rowdy bunch.   And we want to encourage a positive impression of the “Corpul Pescii Voluntare” in the village.  It’s amazing that one can have an evening out at the bar for less than $5 American and then come home to a warm meal of fresh vegetable soup, complete with raw garlic right out of the ground.  And not have to do any dishes. Life doesn’t get much better.

My window

Twinkle, Little Star

This morning I opened my email and discovered a 41-page document from the Moldovan Community Organizational Development (COD) Program Director outlining the goals, strategies, and outcome measurements of the Peace Corps relative to its in-country community collaborative partnerships.  It is a comprehensive, coherent and detailed document that goes a long way toward clarifying what I will be doing for the next 27 months.  With all the excitement and bustle of shopping, packing, and making the rounds of goodbyes, I almost forgot that I will actually be working for the first time in almost two years.  Predictably, the insidious doubting of my own abilities and skills started snuffling round the perimeter of my thoughts: “Can I really be of service to a community of people with a completely different culture? Political and social environment? Economic obstacles? Language?”   I slap down this unwarranted disbelief in my own experience and history as the debilitating and ennervating soul-sucker it is – I must believe that I can or I have no business getting on that plane next Monday.

My good friend Stacy, who worked alongside me at Canyon Acres as the CFO for almost 15 years, recently began working at a new agency.  I remember how nervous she was, thinking that her experience at Canyon Acres had been so insular and particular that she might not have anything substantive to offer her new employer.  After her first two weeks, however, I received an email from her detailing the many meaningful tools and insights she was bringing to the table and how appreciative her new employer was.  Most of all, however, she surprised herself at the true value she was able to impart to this new organization.  I always believed in her – I knew how much I relied on her wisdom and experience in my own professional endeavors.  But, like her, I have a hard time acknowledging the gems in my own treasure chest. I keep the lid shut tight and refrain from assessing my own worth.

Why is it that we women, especially, tend to minimize our effectiveness and value outside the realm of our immediate comfort zone?  Most of us refrain from blowing hard on our own horn, downplaying our particular gifts and skill sets in favor of deferring to the overall effectiveness of the team or group or department that garners our allegiance.  While this quality girds our ability to integrate easily into collective endeavors, it can also detract from our individual sense of self-esteem and cause us to shrink from challenges that may highlight our own specific talents and abilities.

Of course I don’t want to generalize this observation too broadly: in my professional capacities I have worked with a handful of women who were very self-assured and competent and not at all reticent to shine a light on their own accomplishments.  Interestingly enough, however, these women tended to rise quickly to the top of their organization and color the very real successes of their collective efforts solely as testaments to their managerial, mentoring and leadership abilities.  There seems to be too few of us able to comfortably reside in that fuzzy territory between acknowledging our own contributions and celebrating the accomplishments of a group.

I look to my Peace Corps service as a vehicle in helping me reach that place.  While the Peace Corps itself is a bureaucratic  governmental entity drawing on multiple resources and capacities to accomplish its goals, its particular structure lends itself to identifying, clarifying and focusing the individual skills and experience of its volunteer work force.  There are no standard jobs that PCVs are slotted to fill; each posting reflects the assessed, time-limited needs of a particular community being matched with the skills and experience of a particular volunteer.  Usually, we do not replace or repeat a former PCV’s role in any given project (English teachers are one exception;) each one of us is expected to discover and define a unique service, defined by our own histories, talents, and accomplishments, that we can offer a public administrative body or non-governmental organization collaboratively seeking to build its capacity or strengthen its infrastructure.

Admittedly, our individual stars will be mere pinpricks in the spangled firmament of US foreign aid and intervention, but I hope, after my two years is over, I can feel confident in the genuine light I’ve brought to one little corner of this world.  While I will have a great deal of support and guidance in accomplishing my goals and objectives, in the end the measure of my effectiveness will be largely attributable to my own creativity, motivation, and efforts.  I will be on my own a great deal of the time, working within a strange environment to facilitate the goals of a foreign community to capitalize its internal resources.  In doing so, I hope to accomplish much the same for myself.

The Face of God

This past weekend I was fortunate to spend time in intentional retreat with a group of thirty women, most of them in their forties, fifties, and sixties, but one as young as twenty six who fit right in with the rest of us.   It was especially bittersweet for me, knowing that I have only one month left in the States and that I will not see the majority of them for a long, long time.  I know these women through a particular church – one with a very liberal, progressive, and non-dogmatic theology – that I began attending in 2008, many years after fleeing Catholicism in disgust during early adolescence.   I don’t see all of them every week; in fact, this annual weekend retreat represents my sole contact with more than half of them.  Amazingly, we pick up right where we left off the previous year, somehow still close in heart and mind despite having spent little or no time with each other in the interim.

My issues with organized religion are familiar to a host of others, I’m sure, who have been unable to resolve the ethical and moral dissonance demonstrated constantly in the disparity between message and action of so many self-identified “Christians.”   The Jesus who is portrayed in the gospels has no similarity, for me, to the “Christ” of those who denigrate and disparage others because of their ethnicity, vulnerabilities, sexuality, gender identity, alternate stories of God, or any one of the myriad qualities that define us as radiant, unique personifications of inspired creation.

What is refreshing and altogether captivating about being with these women is that for some 48 hours I am actually living within a community that aims to substantiate the gospels’ exhortation to love wholeheartedly and without judgment.   For a brief two days, barriers to acceptance are lowered and one can dangle a toe or finger in the heady waters of unconditional love.   There are tears and confessions and expiation and deep belly laughter and an ephemeral joy that sometimes swells and lifts us to epiphany.

They are not saints, or angels, or martyrs, these women; we complain, and kvetch, and gossip, and share private jokes that could prove to be hurtful if aired.  We are human and often fail to fully embody the challenging ministry set forth by Jesus to love all others unreservedly.  But girding our weaknesses and missteps is a powerful commitment to see and hear and hold one another, to create a safe space where vulnerabilities and transgressions can be revealed and acknowledged, shared, and reframed into a basis for learning and growing.  We are able to look unblinking into each others’ eyes and sing “You are beautiful, you are whole, and you are perfect; you are a gift to this world.”  As corny as this may sound, it takes an unusual degree of trust and hopefulness do this with conviction, with no hesitancy or shame or embarrassment.

It is experiences like this that I will miss so much, and wonder how to recreate in a land where the language is not innate to me, where the cultural mores are different, where religion is embodied in unfamiliar rites and rituals that have deep historical significance for its practitioners, but no meaningful resonance for me. Yet this is one of the integral reasons I had for joining the Peace Corps: the wish to surmount fear of the other, the uncomfortable, the foreign or strange.  So much in our current post-9/11 experience emphasizes our separateness, preys upon our anxieties regarding anything foreign, and magnifies our convictions that we as Americans personify the best way of being in this world.  But if one examines the basis of these fears and anxieties and convictions, one might be surprised to discover similar mental constructs separating us from our unmet neighbors; the homeless guy at his post on the off ramp; the hoodie-shrouded youths approaching on a darkened street; the sea of unfamiliar faces at a professional convention; the intimate huddles of conversers at a cocktail party; an authority figure presiding over an important aspect of our life; or a group of foreign travelers sharing our same flight.  We project dark forces and magnificent foes into the void of the unknown, imagining, conversely, that which is familiar to be somehow more fitting or appropriate to our survival or comfort, even if sometimes it has proved just as dangerous or malevolent in its manifestations.

Both times prior to my venturing into unfamiliar countries – Ecuador and Peru, then Guatemala – I have nursed an amalgamation of irrational fears, visualizing roving bands of armed thugs predisposed to hijacking tour buses; cunning tricksters sidling through crowds to surreptitiously liberate my passport or wallet; Kafka-esque labyrinths of unexpected bureaucracy that would entrap and preclude me returning to the US; narcotized, hallucinating drivers piloting rickety taxis over precipices; or sardonic vendors who would sell me tainted food in revenge for my perceived affluence.   All of these anxieties, while traceable, perhaps, to some apocryphal story of a friend of a friend or inflammatory media depiction aimed at the consuming masses, were born of the amorphous stew that bubbles up from the hippocampus, warning us to regard anything unknown as suspect and inherently dangerous, an ingrained, primal reaction that the disciples of Jesus so elegantly surmounted by welcoming the traveler, the Gentile, the leper, the thief and the prostitute into their midst.

I am so profoundly grateful for these women, their actualization of Christian love and the buoyancy they have breathed into my spirit as I embark on my lengthy sojourn half way across the world.  I trust that their legacy of love and encouragement will help me build connections with the new women I will meet, and find familiarity and comfort in them and their husbands and children and parents and siblings and neighbors and teachers and priests.  I am learning to acknowledge, then stay my irrational fears, relinquishing them in favor of an enfolding trust that all that is human is in common with me and is synonymous with  the face of God.

Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar.For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.

1 John 4:20