Someone asked me if I’d written a blog post lately and the guilt returned. The guilt that simmers perpetually on the back burner now, reminding me that my life has settled back into mundane, that I have, yet again, returned to treading the wheel of routine. And, while it’s not a bad routine – much better, in fact, than any I have had in years – it still leaves me relatively void of inspiration or those self-revelatory moments of clarity prompted by transporting oneself into an alien environment. Moldova has become my home turf, for the time being.
Reading back over journal entries and posts penned during my first year, I remember how raw and wide open I felt, like every circumstance was apprehended through senses stretched to their limits by the constant, unrelenting barrage of the unfamiliar. It was a feeling, though often uncomfortable and sometimes downright painful, that made me feel completely awake and every bit alive. But, little by little, I managed to carve out a niche for myself that, over 2 1/2 years, became worn with everyday use. I know my way around this tiny country. I speak the language, shop the piața, ride public transport (such as it is,) fly in and out of its airport, follow the antics of its politicians and take the elevator to the office. Now, realizing that I have a bare six months left of this experience, I’ve had to forcibly shake myself back into awareness and begin planning for next steps and where to go from here. Just the thought of leaving what’s become comfortable, safe, and habitual is causing small frissons of anxiety, the subtle knowledge that I will again be at loose ends in the world.
The last time this happened, I drifted for what seemed like an interminable time (it was actually only about four months) before I locked onto the prospect of Peace Corps and felt the relief of having a direction and purpose. It is difficult for me, as accustomed as I have become through almost 40 years of full time employment, to adjust to the idea of not having a commitment, a place to be, responsibilities that anchor and define me. We are what we do, in some sense, and to have ‘nothing’ to do feels like losing the outlines of one’s identity, becoming blurry and indistinct, as if an eraser has passed over you once or twice. I write ‘nothing,’ though, because it is only in terms of the established culture that we consider those who are not bound to a job to be, essentially, unoccupied. Think of meeting someone for the first time, on an airplane or at a party. Soon enough the question comes: What do you do? This question is intended to elicit your profession or job, so most people know better than to say “Well, I read a lot,” or “Most mornings I do some yoga, then I usually do my food shopping, afterwards I might surf the internet for a couple of hours.” People without jobs – unless they are notably wealthy – are somehow flimsy, ephemeral, suspect. And I am about to become one, yet again.
This time, however, I think I will be less worried. Because my husband and I have virtually no debt these days, we are not burdened by the looming specter of a plummeting credit score or losing our house or bankruptcy. Sure, something catastrophic could happen: I could develop a brain tumor or he could skid on some ice and plow into the back of semi. But the pressing need that I felt back in 2010 when I first lost my job of 20 years has no power over me now. This experience has afforded me the opportunity to view life through a different lens. I can say with absolute surety that my desire to accumulate stuff has evaporated. While I do enjoy having a comfortable bed, indoor plumbing, and a kitchen sufficient for cooking, I have no desire to place an imprint on my living space. Other than wanting clothing that protects me from sun and snow and shoes that don’t raise blisters, I couldn’t care less about my wardrobe. I hate shopping. When I travel, I buy no souvenirs.
The only thing that tempts me now is experience. I am looking forward to that rawness again, to that feeling of being exposed and uncertain and wide open. I’m afraid I might be developing an addiction to becoming unglued. To not knowing. To not having a name tag, or a desk, or business card to tell me who I am. Or what I do.
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.
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.
Tatiana, one of cooks at the senior center where I live, stops me as I emerge from the laundry room. Her shy smile gleams in the dim corridor, her hands drift up out of the darkness, cradling a piping hot donut. The smell of them has been driving me crazy all morning as it wafts through the weekend-empty center, wreathing my apartment in the smell of yeasty goodness. My refrigerator is bare, victim of a busy workweek and a lazy proprietor; I haven’t had the motivation to get dressed yet, much less trudge to the market. Manna from heaven seals the deal: I am glad to be back home in Moldova.
For a few days, I’ll admit now, it was touch and go.
Back in July, the United States had welcomed me back with abundance, diversity, energy and climactic beauty. From the moment my plane touched down, the infusion began: a smorgasbord of food and ethnic restaurants; the physical presence of family and friends with the cornucopia of attendant emotions that reconnecting brings; late-model vehicles that at times, unbelievably, held me, alone; store aisles and city streets and national parks (national parks!) teeming with a vast display of the world’s heterogeneity; background noise that was comprehensible, be it radio, TV, elevator music, or the couple at the next table; and always, everywhere, people smiling, eyes connecting, greetings freely tossed between passersby, laughter shared in lines. I traveled to California, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and Ohio, touching down briefly in Chicago and DC; every single place felt like home.
Leaving was rough. Around the second week of September, when the end was in sight, a little pit of discontent nestled down behind my heart. I immediately began to stuff it full of trivial, idiosyncratic goodbyes – so long sidewalks; later labels written in English; bye-bye blasting shower heads; be seeing you housecats, ice cubes, parking lots, landscaping, yummy Greek yogurt – leaving as little room as possible for the murky, seeping melancholia of separation from the meaningful: husband, daughter, grandmother, parents, brothers, nieces and nephews, former colleagues and schoolmates and best friends forever: all the faces who hold my history, reflect my truths and anchor my memories.
When I had first landed in Orange County, my husband called me, his excitement pulsing through the telephone pinholes, raining down like little candy hearts onto my eardrums: “You’re on the same continent!” he raved. “I could walk to where you are!” Understand that at the time he was still 1,800 miles away in Cincinnati, Ohio. But they were land miles. In the event of a cataclysmic, world-altering event, theoretically, we could find each other. It was, in some deeply comforting, inexplicable way, exciting. But now, here I was about to put an ocean and the breadth of another continent between us.
I was casting off again…
Arriving back in Chișinău after 15 hours of flying, 7 time zone changes and no sleep wasn’t conducive to a good mood at the outset. But I am lucky to have friends outside of the PC community by this time, so thankfully I didn’t have to wrestle two suitcases and a backpack onto the airport rutiera or pay the exhorbitant taxi fee that is standard fare for foreigners, regardless if you speak the language. A wonderful couple attached to the US Embassy picked me up and we had a great dinner at one of the nicer restaurants catering to ex-pats, ennabling me to delay full re-entry for a couple more hours. After enduring the 30 minute bumper car traffic out of Chisinău into my village, then the cratered dusty road leading to my center, only to find the entry gate locked, however, all vestiges of America had sailed away. Despite three emails and a text notification sent during the preceding 24 hours, I had to initiate a series of relayed phone calls as we stood outside the gate in order to evoke a keyholder from the residential center to let me in.
Since moving to Moldova, I have made exactly seven trips outside its borders. This was the first time I didn’t feel welcomed home. Due to an agreement I made when I first moved in, periodically I must move out of my apartment in order to accommodate specific volunteers who have been friends of the center since its inception. During the nine weeks I was in the US these volunteers visited, so I had had to pack up all my belongings in bags and boxes prior to my departure. Upon my return this time, I was greeted by a bare mattress, gaping refrigerator and larder, empty hangers, and a thin film of dust on the counters. And, in a huge departure from the usual, Buddy and Little Sheba (the center’s dogs) had not bounded out to greet me when I came through the gate. I learned the next morning that they had been summarily eliminated, along with many of the village dogs, during a mysterious night of gunshots for which no has claimed responsibilty or been held accountable. It was all decidely depressing.
And to top it off, I had to hit the ground running. It takes a lot longer than 36 hours to recover from jet lag and seven time zone changes; unfortunately that was all that I had prior to having to embark on a whirlwind schedule of trainings, appoinments, meetings, and my new partnership with Novateca (more about that in another post.) I continued to want to fall asleep at 2:30 or 6:30 (PM) and awaken at 12:30 or 2:30 (AM.) It took eight days to fully unpack and at least ten days for a semblance of diurnal normalcy to find me again. I felt disoriented and uncharacteristically disconsolate, set adrift in a manner I’ve only experienced two or three times in this lifetime. There had been too much warmth and acceptance, conections and laughter, comfort and familiarity, control and convenience, to have it so quickly snatched away. This time there was not the excitement of the unknown to bouy me; the adventure had already been had. My fellow M27s have, for the most part, moved on – to graduate school, extended travel, career track jobs, marriage and babies. My footsteps echo in a hollow space.
But let’s not end on such a somber note. Today was the first day since I’ve returned that has been totally mine. I had nowhere to be and nothing I had to accomplish. I got some laundry done and cooked up a pot of beans. I am writing on the awesome new laptop which my generous husband paid DHL a dear amount to deliver safely to me; I’ve spent the greater part of the day poking around her menus, caressing her touch screen, and courting her thinly veiled charms. The cool of autumn is gilding the leaves red and gold outside my window. It is 46 degrees and I’m beginning to don the layers (93 degrees in Huntington Beach today – are you kidding me???) And a sweet angel gifted me a homemade donut when I was hungry. Already, again, this foreign life is settling in around me, becoming home once more.
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*:
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.
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.
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.
Send someone for lumber to construct a casket. Send someone else to dig a grave in your family plot in the village cemetery.
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.
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.
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.
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’twant 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.
A young child asks his mother to imagine that she is completely surrounded by tigers , with no weapon available, and nowhere to hide. What would she do? The mother hesitates, ponders the question, and replies that she has no idea what she would do. The mother then asks the child what he would do, and he replies, “I would stop imagining.”
I came across this enigmatic little tale in a book I am reading: “Stepping Out of Self- Deception: the Buddha’s Liberating Teaching of No-self” by Rodney Smith. My mind keeps returning to its deceptive simplicity – how much of our fears, anxieties, worries, and dreads are born of our own imagination? And what is the imagination, when you get down to it? Neurobiology creating worlds out of electrical impulses…including the very real impression that there is a ‘self’ capable of inputting, managing, and analyzing the data.
I am also reading Diane Keaton’s memoir Then Again in which she traces the deterioration of both her parent’s mental capacities and abilities to maintain a ‘self’ – her father’s as a result of a brain tumor and her mother’s due to Alzheimer’s. (When books I am reading cross-pollinate it always causes me to pay special attention.) In both cases, their respective imaginations began to rule their experience and caused them (and all their loved ones) undue anguish. Their “selves” were no longer at the wheel. But then where does that self go? Who is driving? What is experiencing the anguish? I tend to think of a mental illness as some sort of discreet demon – an evil imposter that wrenches control away from the proper owner of the brain/body. As if the sane person was locked up in a cage in a corner of the mind, rattling the bars, screaming to get loose. But that could really only be the case if we want to put our faith in some sort of entity akin to a soul. Because increasingly, neuroscientists are affirming many of the basic tenets of Buddhism: the “self” we wear so deeply, clutch so strongly – that, in fact, is the essential definition of who/what “we’ are in this world – is impossible to parse out from the machinations of the brain.
Meditators with years and years of experience tell us that they experience a consciousness unrelated to a sense of self; a deep, impersonal awareness that absorbs and dissipates the ego. Does this awareness remain present, I wonder, lurking above it all when a person’s imagination runs haywire? Or take the comatose person lying in a bed for decades with no apparent signs of brain activity other than those maintaining the body – is this pure awareness present without the mitigating factor of imagination or self?
What happens when there is no “i” to stop imagining or to imagine at all? I can’t imagine it….can you?
I received an email from Peace Corps today. It kindly reminded me that, since there is but a scant six months separating me and my scheduled Close of Service (COS) date, the US Government will no longer be reimbursing me for any tutoring expenses I should choose to incur from this point on. (The subtext being, of course: if you haven’t learned the language sufficiently by now we’re no longer subsidizing your lame efforts, loser.) Now, I haven’t engaged a language tutor for some 9 or 10 months, not because I couldn’t have benefited from the tutelage but mostly because I was too lazy to search for a new one after I moved from my first site. And now, seemingly, it’s too late. I’m stuck with the primary grammar and intermediate vocabulary that I have cobbled together from 3 months of intense initial instruction followed up by 16 months of just living – using public transportation, making purchases, attending social gatherings, stepping on people’s feet and elbowing around them, trying to make friends and chase off hooligans, inquire as to the origin of the food I’m about to eat, and/or find my way back to familiar ground when I have inadvertently failed to follow rapidly communicated directions correctly.
And this is okay, I guess. But it sparks the slow embers of a flaring realization: I am sliding inexorably towards an exit sign, leading to a vast, uncharted territory that I have not adequately planned, nor properly dressed for. I am woefully unprepared for an appointment with my future. Egads.
So, this is that time in most PCV’s service when our focus is suddenly jerked up – from our prospects, our projects, our parties, our partners, our preoccupation with all things toilet. We begin blinking our microscope eyes, searching for the plumb line of the horizon, flexing shoulders and toes, stretching, slowly, back into still life silhouettes, anticipating movement ahead. Change is coming, certainly not tomorrow, but sooner than next year. The train is still small, on its belly in the distance, smoke billowing faintly against a vague tree line; but the track is beginning to quiver, warning of its approach.
First, the days drag. They smother and weigh. They mimic molasses and the last sticky drops of honey at the bottom of the jar. Then, they stretch and yawn, only to slump into stagnant heaps of furry formlessness for another gray sock of time. It takes at least a year for them to muster strength, gain courage and gather some momentum, find an outline and draw a trajectory, to finally pop into a periodic semblance of productivity and purpose. And so you have this idyllic six or seven, or even just four or five, months of actual, clear, and (hopefully) meaningful service before the powers that be jet you a reminder you that it will all be over sooner than you can fully plumb the depressing acknowledgement that you will never know Romanian better than you do now. Party’s over folks. Time to begin looking for your wallet and keys
So our group’s COS date selection is scheduled for February 2. I remember reading about this event when it happened for the M26’s last year. Their blogs and Facebook pages were filled with it – how surprised they were, how fast it went, how unprepared they felt for leaving. (Remember, this was when the molasses was still making its achingly slow passage across my calendar…..) And now here I am, standing in the same corridor, facing the same blank doorway. Oh my, how little we take away. (What is the use of all this incessant sharing anyway? It has not an iota of impact on our individual decision making or planning processes.)
The plan is to meet, throw our desired dates into a hat, and hold our collective breath while the Country Director draws our fate, setting into stone the chronology of our individual departures – two or three days difference meaning the world to some.
Me? I don’t really care. I may, in fact, not be leaving this summer after all…
In my previous post I mentioned a quote. “If you don’t know where you are going, then any road will take you there.”
I’ve been turning this over for days in my head. At first, I read it as an admonishment against those who didn’t plan, a chastisement for blowing in the wind, having no direction or goal, no “personal vision” that guided their journey. But as this line of thinking simmered, I seasoned it with other spice blends of timeless wisdom stored in the keepsake box of memory: be here now; life is what happens when you’re busy making plans; change leads to insight far more often than insight leads to change; live the life you’re proud of or find the strength to start over again; make spontaneity a habit; life never stops but continues until it ends; become a connoisseur of your own mistakes; own yourself; it feels good to be lost in the right direction;…my mental stewing gained complexity, condensed and thickened… the aromas deepened.
During my time here, I have begun following a certain type of blogger – people who have made travel and ex-pat living a lifestyle. They range in age from late 20’s to early 60’s; there are couples and single women. There are people who have flexible jobs that allow them to work online and those that return stateside every 2-3 years to earn enough money to hit the road again. Some of them could be deemed professionals, others are vagabond gypsies. (One is a professional vagabond!) They have various strategies for maintaining health and well-being, but the universal attribute they all seem to share is being ecstatically, blissfully, enchantingly happy. They can’t get enough of their life. I love to immerse myself in their experiences, to catch a whiff of the winds blowing them, to feel the world expand and embrace them, carry them along, going nowhere and everywhere.
I have spent the past couple of decades with a vague idea of a destination in my head. At some nebulous point I would reach a time when I would no longer be straight-jacketed by a job and then wonderful things would begin to happen: I would indulge my desire to write and travel and learn a new language and volunteer for a worthy cause. I would eat better and meditate regularly. I would pare down my wardrobe and toss all my high-heeled shoes. I would read a whole lot more.
But I had no idea how to get myself there other than stashing money in a retirement account and paying the mortgage every month. Surely those activities would land me in the desired place, right? It was during my late 40’s that I began to suspect that I was hoodwinking myself, that I had set my feet down a path in my 20’s that petered out on some dim horizon across a vast and arid desert. Life was happening to me while I was scrabbling towards its end.
Joining the Peace Corps was, in part, an acknowledgement that I did not know, nor did I really care, where I was headed anymore. I was tired of pretending that my daily activities were all coins placed in a piggy bank that I could break into someday to buy my reward. When I lost the job, the safety net, the leash that kept me to the path, I fell. Not just down to the ground, but through the ground; I was floating in undefined space. There was not a road anymore, no signs pointing in any direction. I was a ship unmoored, drifting from the harbor. With nowhere to go, I could go anywhere. Let the tide take me.
I appreciate being exactly this age, in my early 50’s, as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Unlike those who joined after college, I am not using this experience to pad my resume, to gain legitimacy, to globally network or bolster my LinkedIn profile. I am no longer hearing the thrum of a body clock ticking that those in their 30’s can’t shut out. And yet, unlike (perhaps) those in their 70’s and 80’s, I still feel like I have a substantial chunk of time left to skip along to nowhere or anywhere or wherever this road I’m on might lead. It feels good to not be planning on the future, to be fully present in what’s happening right here and now.
My past lifestyle rarely gave me the opportunity to make big changes. I stayed in the same job, lived in the same neighborhood, patronized the same stores and restaurants, drove the same streets and freeways, and walked the same pathways with my dogs, for years and years and years. And while this conferred an opportunity to nurture lifelong friendships, raise my daughter well, put a little money away, and grow my professional skills, it also deprived me of challenges and the courage to face them. I began to harbor little yapping dogs of fear in my skull: “You’ll never have enough money to quit working,” “You’ll probably get cancer and die from all those year of smoking,” “By the time you retire, you’ll be too old and feeble to enjoy it,” yadda, yadda, yadda. And while I certainly don’t knock those people who find fulfillment and reward and purpose on that particular path, it just wasn’t doing it for me anymore. It hadn’t for a long, long time.
The long and short of it is that if my request for an extension is granted I am probably going to be spending another year in Moldova. Right now I am not ready to leave this road going nowhere. But the biggest surprise of all? I am indulging my desire to write and travel and learn a new language and volunteer for a worthy cause. I am eating better and meditating regularly. I have pared down my wardrobe and tossed all my high-heeled shoes. And I am reading a whole lot more.
And after that? Perhaps next I will join those ranks of bloggers with ecstatic souls, whose feet are comfortable trodding any path, with or without signposts, or pavement, or destinations or direction.
There is so much left of life to live before it ends.
It is true that I went back and forth with myself about taking it with me: I packed it once, thought better of it, removed it from the suitcase, yet, as I was draping it back over the hangar, became bewitched again with the image of its soft black folds whirling about me in the winds whipping off the waves on the Isle of Skye. It was a fanciful accessory, a black cotton drape styled midway between cape and shawl, seemingly made by a costumer for a lass of the Scottish highlands. And, despite having left lass in the rearview mirror a couple of decades hence, I just couldn’t resist the notion of donning it on this quintessential stage. Perhaps it did carry a Iittle of the magic I had imbued it with over the years. A good luck charm for travel. Pulling it from the hangar, I bundled it up carefully and placed it in the front zippered pocket, readily accessible for the Kodak moment when it arrived.
I had first seen it on my sister almost 30 years ago and immediately coveted it. It was the height of my Fleetwood Mac phase, the mid-80’s, a time when it was surprisingly difficult to find the vintage, theatrical items that are a dime-a-dozen through Urban Outfitters, Buffalo Exchange, and hundreds of other outlets these days. It actually shocked me that she didn’t offer it to me – her of the easy acquiescence, the pliable Beth to my fiery Jo, the good one that always shared and never complained; nursing the arm I’d accidently broken, when she was eight and I twelve, into the predawn hours before her stifled whimpering finally alerted our mom. My little sister adored me, completely and utterly, in that unique, submissive fashion that a less studied character holds for one more flamboyant and artful.
Still life from a family photo album: me, front and center, encircled by a halo of pink tutu, hair coiffed in stiffly sprayed curls, eyes rimmed with turquoise, toe pointed in front of me, back arched, arms bowed at my sides; her, standing in the background, a little to my right, pudgy hands folded at her belly button, tights sagging, leotard bunched at her waist, mouth slightly agape, eyes gazing up at me, rapturous, as if Glinda had just materialized in front of her. An accidental, naked portrait of how it always was between us.
I had recently returned, reluctantly, to the dull harbor of my old bedroom at our parent’s house. Lorraine had just fledged, leaving the boyfriend she had lived with since high school to share a freshly outfitted apartment with a co-worker. There was a newly minted assurance coating her, a sheen of silvery confidence that signaled a subtle shift in our relationship. While my post-adolescence wanderings may have increased the hip-cred I brandished to cover my wounds, she seemed to have glided over my years of awkward angst to alight, perhaps tentatively, in a place of adulthood. She made me a little nervous.
But when she pulled out the black shawl one afternoon as we headed out to lunch, I immediately recovered my big sister voice.
“Oh wow, sissy – that is beautiful! Where did you get it? You have to give it to me!”
Closing my eyes I can still picture the careful compression of her puffy lips, the firm little shake of her head.
“Nope. It’s mine.” Lilt at the end. Smiling, but implacable.
She wore it everywhere we went during those long ago months: a concert; the fair; furniture shopping for her new place. And I continued to crave ownership, scooping it up and swirling it about my shoulders whenever I found it tossed on her couch, stomping about her living room like Stevie in her boots, belting out “Rhiannon” while flourishing an invisible tambourine. She would laugh and agree that it fit me. But she never ceded.
So perhaps it was a matter of course that I had my way elsewhere, appropriating the swarthy Armenian jeweler she brought me to meet one sunny afternoon in March. Perched on a Laguna bluff, his little shop part workspace, part bohemian haven, redolent of incense, curtained by vines and palm fronds. Andreas Vollenwieder rolled in buoyant waves over us as we sipped chardonnay from wrought iron chairs on his doorstep and watched the sun glint off the Pacific. Her flirting was so self-effacing and contained that it aggravated my chronic promiscuity. I was sleeping with him within a week.
Next, I impulsively acquired the same model car she had spent hours and hours making up her mind to buy, comparing color and interior options, gas mileage, performance ratings, and safety scores. She was days away from purchase when I drove up to her place in a brand new, blue, 5-speed Mitsubishi Cordia.
“You wanted white. I thought we could be twins.”
I think I actually made her mad with that one. But she never said a word. And within two weeks she had a Toyota Corolla fastback: smaller, sleeker, cuter.
It was the car she died in, it’s aroma of new carpet and leather seats not quite dissipated, a bare month later.
What does one do with dead people’s things? How much of the person do they hold within, captured moments and memories, static icons of fluid emotions, precious objects with no other intrinsic value than of once having been curated by someone disappeared?
Within hours of learning of my sister’s accident, I find myself in her bedroom, spinning in slow circles, a lighthouse spotlight trying to pierce the syrupy morning sunlight replete with bobbing dust motes, tiny faeries trying to break free of amber. My glance falls upon the cast off bathrobe crumpled on the bed; the brush full of hair lying on the windowsill; the smudged mirror reflecting tubes and compacts of make-up, bottles unscrewed, on the vanity; the open closet spilling forth clothing askew on its hangars. Bathrobe, brush, mirror, closet, bathrobe, brush, mirror, closet. The fairy dust shimmers as the sun rises higher. The smell of her conditioner lingers in the close air.
What to do with all of this? How sudden is the moment when things change into useless, superfluous litter, floating in space. Do I take that brush tangled with her last hair? The robe, still damp from last night’s shower? Or the lipstick she always wore, surely smeared with the tiny slivers of skin always flaking from her lips? I can’t seem to grasp it, the enormous, echoing void left by a life abruptly vacated, the cavernous, stretching emptiness of it, the detritus scattered on its shore.
It is only as I turn to go that my eyes brush across the tail of black fabric snaking out from amidst the sandals, sneakers, and high heels jumbled atop each other on the floor of the closet. I am in the doorway before it penetrates and I spin around.
Mine now. Sissy, it’s mine.
The years since her passing kaleidoscope: I’m a young, single mother; a university student; a counselor; an executive; a wife; a homeowner. My bank account expands along with my waistline. The Armenian jeweler moves to Hawaii and I never hear from him again. I sell the Cordia to buy the ’64 Porsche of my first husband’s dreams. Lace skirts and crystal beads give way to sensible pumps and blazers. The detritus of my own life recedes in my wake, falling beyond the horizon.
But the shawl stays, a lasting imprint, the cocoon I wrap around me during cold months of grieving, the totem of resilience and serenity which I doggedly tote through all my incarnations. Mine, but still hers, it takes me ten years to wash it, convinced as I am that her DNA is still entwined amongst the threads.
My daughter, too, comes to covet it. I let her wear it whenever; it fits her eclectic Echo Park, retro-Beat chic. But I am firm when I find it amongst the clothing she has piled in the back of her truck, preparing to move to Tahoe.
“Really, mom? It’s not like you can carry it off anymore.”
“It’s Lorraine’s, sweetie. It’s all I have left.”
She flings me the withering look.
“So I guess I’ll just wait for you to die, huh?”
It catches me. When will – if ever – I let it go? When will it would it be okay to let it slip from my grasp, to allow the last tangible piece of her to float away from me in space, to no longer have the least physical connection embody her? Why not let the one have it who will most likely be packing up my abandoned things someday? A thought – not enormous – but elusive, slippery, fraught with tingles of pain like little electric shocks sparking beneath my skin.
No. Not yet.
I found out that just days before her death Lorraine had driven to my grandmother’s house in Montrose to type up her application for American Airlines. (Yes, in 1985 we typed things.) She never mentioned it to me, perhaps because she knew the derision I would express for such a safe, contained version of wanderlust. Always methodical and practical, perhaps she had her own thoughts about my wanton attitude toward life at that time. Perhaps she had drawn her own conclusion, never articulated, about the big sister who jumped without quite attaining flight. About the web of scars filmed over by the gauzy persona of a world-weary, hippie-gypsy returned, hiding the tale between her legs.
I will never how it would have been between us, after the glitter faded. I know that she loved me. And I her. But women are not so little girls; who knows what it would have been like, each with her own stage, a separate spotlight, different audiences to attend to? In my imagination, at times, she eclipses me, meeting a middle-eastern businessman, moving to Turkey, having a passel of honey-bronze children, getting a PhD.
Me, I am more practical now. There are less and less occasions when a decades-old black shawl seems appropriate. In part, joining the Peace Corps was a little homage to her: a safe, contained way to indulge wanderlust. Yet, during the process of selling and giving away the bulk of my possessions before leaving, I hold the black shawl in my hands, weighing its significance, wondering if now is finally the right time to let go. And I recall the way the tangled gold of her hair spilled forth from the folds of the attached scarf when she wound it about her head. The way it enveloped her, hanging longer and looser about her smaller frame. The afternoons in her living room, draping it about myself seductively, twirling to the music with contrived abandon, hoping to win the prize.
I hold it up to my nose. Not a trace of her smell remains. I am not sure I even remember what she smelled like. With a fleeting sense of panic, I toss it in the “keep” pileand bring it with me to Moldova.
I am wearing it in the picture of me on the boat from the mainland crossing over to the Isle of Skye, the land of the faeries. I am smiling, happy to be going to a place on my bucket list. I am 51 years old; more lies behind me than in front of me these days. I can discern the dim outline of a horizon out there ahead.
So the emotions are mixed, confused, when I discover it missing as I am packing the next day to depart. Long, slow breaths as the realization floods in. It is gone, disappeared, leaving a black hole within my suitcase. Had I tossed it on the bed in the hostel, where some transient backpacker espied it, liberating it for it new adventure? Or placed it on the back of the chair at the bar, ready for the next itinerant guest to don before she boarded the cross-country train to distant realms? Or perhaps it went home with the server, to reside on the Isle of Skye for a handful of decades until her daughter packs it in a box or hangs it in up in her own closet someday? Who knows? It happened. It is gone from my life, the last trace of her, without me having to decide, choose, finally let go.
I tell myself she would be proud of me, that our love would have blossomed and flourished through the years, that we would have grown to stand next to each other, holding hands, shoulders touching, heads tilted slightly towards each other. In my mind’s eye, we share center stage and the spotlight cloaks us both in warm brilliance. Neither one of us is wearing the cape. A Kodak moment, a studied, slightly fuzzy portrait of the people we became.
And a clenched hand releases, letting her drift, the last anchor now lifted, finally free to roam the space of this world.