Otherwhens, otherwheres

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

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

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

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Market High

Market High

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

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

And then I got to Fairfield and met Jungle Jim.

Jungle Jim's

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

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

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

Jim
The wizard himself, Jungle Jim

***

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

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

Trading down for uptime

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

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

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

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

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

We must become ignorant of all that we have been taught

And be instead bewildered.

Run from what is profitable and comfortable.

If you drink those liqueurs

You will spill the spring waters of your real life.

Forget safety.  Live where you fear to live.

Destroy your reputation, be notorious.

I have tried prudent planning for long enough.

From now on I live mad.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s Next?

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

Another chapter to be written in the Book of Revelation.

Last Bell

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

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

Let the bells ring!

Success?

My time in Moldova comes to an end in exactly two weeks. I’ve been busy packing suitcases to ship home; trekking overflow items to Peace Corps office for adoption by other volunteers; saying goodbye to friends and co-workers; visiting a variety of restaurants I had no idea existed here; solidifying plans for various journeys I’ll take in the next few months – in short, distracting myself from reflexively seeking to affirm that three years of service have generated some notable positive outcomes. In a word: success! A fellow M27 just sent me an email in which he observed that, though he left Moldova over a year ago, he has yet to reflect or even talk about his time in country. I understand perfectly; it is an experience that I did not imagine completely absorbing for years, maybe even decades. Perhaps it would coalesce into clarity only on my deathbed, I thought.

I was wrong. Because this:

 :I boarded a bus yesterday evening to go say goodbye to a couple of friends, a delightful couple with whom I made a memorable trip to Poland (you will always remember the people who walked beside you through Auschwitz.) I was pondering our respective next moves, marveling at the circumstances that brought us into each other’s orbit – them career State Department employees who routinely relocate to a different country every 2-3 years, me having made an impulsive leap out of 20+ years of suburban stasis – when I unwittingly sat down across from this guy pictured above. At first, he was reclining with his head back, eyes shut, legs stuck out straight, for all the world as if his seat was a poolside lounger. I assumed he was a commuter catching a quick nap on the way home. Caught in my reverie, I was barely taking in the cues: wet, mud stained trousers, oil-slicked hair, crispy, sunburned skin. I’ve been living here long enough that my surroundings have receded into a backdrop and no longer command the stage.

A couple of minutes into the ride, however, he reared up, gasping, and the abruptness of the movement caught my attention. At this point I was sitting directly across from him, our seats facing each other in that oddly forced intimacy so commonplace in Moldovan trolleys. Through a milky film that occluded both pupils, his eyes locked onto mine as if grasping for a fixed point on a distant horizon. Like a dashboard bobble, his head seemed only loosely connected to an insubstantial neck. He had a harelip and a badly running nose. His eyes kept shifted from my forehead to my nose, to my mouth, to my hair, then back to my eyes again, perhaps trying to integrate the disparate signals reaching his brain. Far inside those murky depths, I sensed a drowning intelligence, a mind still fighting to surface but destined to be overwhelmed, ultimately, by a raging sea. Then he pitched forward, clutched my hands and collapsed face first onto my lap. I could feel his snot penetrating my pants and the grit on his hands abrading mine.

“Nu, nu, nu,” I murmured softly, hoping not to attract attention. “Nyet.” I disentangled myself and crossed the aisle to another seat, whereupon he slid sideways into his own, sinking slowly, inexorably downward for the remainder of my journey.

I’ve encountered sufficient drunks to recognize the acidic stench of an alcohol stew; this man did not give off that smell. For the split second his face was buried in my crotch, I caught whiffs of grass and dirt and sweat and a distant, lingering memory of detergent from his shirt. No, he had the vague, un-sanitized aroma of the mentally ill or of someone, perhaps, in the final throes of a devastating illness.

It is in these situations when that worn-out, abused meme elbows its way to the forefront in my brain: What would Jesus do? Not because I’m a bible-thumping, holier-than-thou proselytizer, but because I find the model of Jesus’ life and his philosophy, even more so than Buddha’s or Mohammed’s or the Flying Spaghetti Monster’s, the ultimate ideal of human compassion, generosity, and unconditional love. As Stephen Colbert trenchantly observed:

If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.

Now, granted, I was riding a bus in Moldova, not the US, and I have no idea what this man’s economic circumstances might actually be, but you get the picture. For all my aspirations toward idealism in joining the Peace Corps – living a more compassionate and caring existence, crossing cultural divides and viewing the world from a different perspective, appreciating the ties that bind us as a global family, yadayadayada – my instinctive response to the “poor” and “needy” when they face plant in my privates is to distance myself, cut away, feign ignorance. Please don’t snot or grime me. I don’t see you.

Although he was no longer aware of me, my gaze kept shifting back to him, a lone, crumpled assemblage of bones among upright rows of briefcase-toting professionals, young women reflecting themselves in mobile phones, grandmothers in shapeless housedresses, fathers holding babies.  Draped over the seatback and hand pole in a submissive posture of degradation and vulnerability, despite being clothed in what may have been, even recently, business casual dress and buffed leather shoes. What was his story? What had happened to him between womb and trolleybus? Where were his people – his parents, or siblings, or school mates, or friends? How had he been reduced from chubby-cheeked toddler to desperate adult, riding an endless bus to avoid the rain?  How indiscriminate, blind, the hand of fate?

I thought of the kids I had worked with for two decades back in California, foster youths, wards of the state, removed from dangerous or apathetic parents, trailing burgeoning files of nasty diagnoses: paranoid personality disorder, schizophrenia, psychosis, borderline personality disorder, anti-social/psychopathic tendency, etc., all usually stemming from the post-traumatic stress rooted in the horrific conditions and experiences of their pasts. And all I could do was get up and change seats.

It slammed into me then, that unsought assessment of what my time here has been worth, catching me unaware, unprotected against the futility and sadness of the epiphany. It is, indeed, a very small world. Six thousand miles and an intervening ocean don’t alter the face of the poor or the needy. It’s only the excuses that change. Back in the US, I had traversed the familiar stages of many a social work career, descending from occasional bouts of disenchantment to a more constant, simmering disgruntlement before landing in the bubbling cauldron of seething disillusionment. I was mad at office politics and national politics, city government and non-profit boards; frustrated by the blatant materialism encouraged in our clients to distract them from the challenges of their circumstances; anguished by the generational abuse I stayed long enough to witness, deeply defensive about the pervasive obstacles I viewed as outside my control.

The notion of Peace Corps – overseas service, a change of scenery, escape from the whirlpool of my cynicism – became the saving grace to which I pinned my faltering notions of what ‘being the change’ I wanted to see in the world really meant. I was going to make a difference. Again, at last, finally.

But what truth  I finally allowed admission here – one not endemic to the Republic of Moldova, but to most nations and most people, and, most painfully, within myself.  In both the villages and the capital, during training and throughout an extended third year, among other PCVs and ex-pats who had come to serve the needy, through a slew of projects and initiatives that purport to foster sustainable change, I encountered a new cornucopia of excuses, reasons why we failed.  And I suddenly realized that there will forever be excuses, we have two thousand years’ worth of reasons why we fail, justifications for why one can’t fit that huge, hairy camel through that ridiculously microscopic needle’s eye.  How prostitute’s feet have been shown to carry disease.  And how impossible it is to throw the moneychangers from the temple once they’ve got the keys. After all, Jesus was a special case, right?  And – even though the United States has cast itself in the role of world savior, a “Christian” nation that touts the four gospels of freedom, equality, opportunity and democracy – it has it’s own citizens safety to prioritize and ensure, doesn’t it.  And surely I cannot not be blamed for avoiding potential contagions or possible threats to my personal integrity, can I?

Please. Scroll up. Read Colbert’s quote a second time.  Spend a sobering 15 minutes seriously pondering the tableau of humanity above, as I did on that bus ride last night to visit those lovely friends who pondered the piled luggage and shorn hair and abandoned eyeglasses and moldering shoes alongside me at Auschwitz. Who spent a solemn three minutes inside a gas chamber, wondering how it happened.

An hour after this experience I was wolfing down a tender brisket, fried okra, baked beans and mac-and-cheese, some of the definitive staples of America’s Southern hospitality. A day later, I’m still doing my damnedest to digest that gluttonous feast, to shut him out, close my eyes, file through the myriad reasons I’m not to blame. But damn if he doesn’t keep thrusting out an intruding hand, chipping away at the glow of my final days, calling into question every moment of the past three years.

Leaving me with just one word: Nyet.

Yet another beginning to an end

This morning I woke up to find that feeling which has been tip-toeing round the underskirts of my consciousness for some weeks now finally deciding to assert itself – IT IS TIME. Time to acknowledge the finish line resolving itself ahead, to pick up the pace and admit that there is nothing left to do but focus forward and Get Shit Done.

Wrapping up Peace Corps service entails a two-page check list of time-consuming administrative tasks. An excerpt:

  • Turn in material items issued at Pre-Service Training such as fire extinguisher, smoke alarm, water filter, safety manual and first aid kit. (Unmentioned is how to actually transport all these items to the Peace Corps office without a vehicle at my disposal.)
  • Close out housing contract, bank, phone, and internet accounts and submit certification that all debts are paid
  • Provide a detailed Site Report describing the local geography, transportation options, government and administrative bodies, safety issues and contacts made during my time living in Straseni
  • Enter requisite data into my last Volunteer Report Form
  • Undergo final medical, dental, and eye exams
  • Participate in close-of-service interviews with the Director of Management and Operations and the Country Director

These, and a host of other expectations, on top of having to figure out what to do with the accumulated dross of three years that I do not want or need or am not able to physically cram into the two suitcases I must pack and ship back to Mike. How much thought do you usually give to the bottled spices, packets of yeast, the half-filled bags of lentils and barley, cornmeal and flour, boxes of tea and stray sugar packets proliferating in your cupboard? What to do with the perfectly good pens and markers, scissors, notebooks, paper tablets, spools of ribbon and thread and packing tape scattered in drawers? It seems a sad waste to just toss the partially-used bottles of lotion, body wash, foot cream, face mask, hair treatment, and skin exfoliating scrub littering my bathroom. Which of the more than one dozen pairs of shoes I transported here during my three trips from the states do I actually wear (really, a dozen? Wtf was I thinking?) What about that beloved hoodie, sweat-stained hat, or paper thin, but-oh-so-comfy tee shirts I’ve held onto for more than a decade – is this the time to let go? These are the decisions that I have been pushing aside for some future day, that other day, the one which dawned today.

***

Most likely it is a blessing to be distracted by this mundane busy work. It keeps me from feeling compelled to digest this experience into pithy bullet points extemporizing “What I Learned in Peace Corps.” Perhaps it is just my age showing but I’ve lived through too many ‘endings’ that turn out to be just another in a series of thresholds. Life lessons continue to shift their narrative, expand in meaning, embrace their antithesis, disprove ‘truths’ and supply an inexhaustible source of wonder and surprise; the story never ends until it does and who knows even then? No one yet (that I know of) has gotten to pen that elusive denouement.

Transitioning back to life in “SUA” (pronounced sue-wah here in Moldova and that’s now how it resonates in my head) legend has it is one of the most challenging aspects of service. So much so that there is actually a section in staging, before one ever leaves American soil, devoted to the insecurities, anxieties, and feelings of displacement typically experienced by Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCV – my new biographical tag.) Why – in the infinitely ambiguous wisdom distilled by the churnings of bureaucracy – Peace Corps Washington believes any prospective volunteer will or can devote an iota of attention to the emotions she might experience 27 months hence while grappling with the blazing neuron rush of launching into a new life is beyond my comprehension. We were given a booklet and solemnly counseled to keep it safe; needless to say it was tossed out into the wake many moons and moves ago. One internalizes the weight of every possession when dependent on public transportation.

Hints of what home may have in store for me are coalescing. I am meeting one of my oldest and dearest friends and her wife in Athens whereupon we depart for sixteen extravagant days in the Greek isles (seven of them at last count!) During my entire three years of travel in Peace Corps (excluding the luxury cruise that was a birthday gift from my mother) the price of my nightly accommodations has exceeded $35 on exactly one occasion (New Year’s Eve in Milan with my husband and daughter.) This trip I will be leaping over that limit nightly. Thanks to the Peace Corps transition allowance – purportedly a provision for insuring an RPCV’s ability to feed and house herself while securing subsequent income but traditionally used to finance a COS trip that often extends into months – I have the means to do this. However, upon returning home again all pretenses that my economic status will fund the lifestyle I enjoyed for most of my adult life will quickly evaporate. While my friends, family members, and professional peers have continued to progress on the path toward retirement, I find myself in uncharted territory, possessed of a strong internal compass but no compelling authority dictating my next steps.

Peace Corps gifts one a diverse new network; the friends I’ve made here range in age from 24 to 62. The ones already back in the States are planning weddings, having babies, attending graduate school, embarking on second careers, working internationally or in DC, traveling with grandchildren, moving to retirement villas, or still meditating on next steps. And, if you think like most people you automatically, albeit incorrectly, distributed the age cohorts along a predictable linear spectrum of life’s major milestones. Because the couple planning their wedding are in their 7th and 8th decades, respectively. The ones having babies are in their late 30’s and early 40’s. Those in graduate school are in their 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s. While second careers are already happening for those not yet 30. There is no guidebook to life after Peace Corps because the people that serve present such a wide array of biographies. So, in a way, I have entered into a new way of being in the world, one less defined by milestone markers achieved than by continuously curving avenues of opportunity twisting and doubling back again just around the bend.

***

As I look around the place I’ve called home for barely month, a compact 25×30′ space that contains the sum of my worldly possessions, and realize that I’ve downsized and moved it all seven times in the last four years, I begin to comprehend the gigantic sideways leap out of the known and predictable that I have made. I guess the one thing that has crystallized for me out of this experience is a truth I’ve always somewhat suspected: It’s all so temporary, isn’t it? For the last decade or so, my inability to accurately remember huge swaths of my life has proved unsettling to me. Faces of the men I’d loved – and lived with! – during my late teens and early 20’s? Forgotten. Those crucial developmental stages between my daughter’s birth and her launch into 1st grade? Gone. The sound of my sister’s voice, the color of her eyes, the slant of her teeth? All lost. How about the 22 months I was in the California Conservation Corps? Mere slivers are all that I retain. Or the feel of the tile or the shape of the faucet or the pattern of the curtain in the shower I used daily for 18 years? So much vapor. Or – moving closer in time – who was my roommate at the hotel in Philly in during staging? I have no idea. What about the trip to Morocco in 2012 – where was that mountain hike? Who was the guy who drove us? How long were we in Marrakesh? I couldn’t tell you. This morning as I was journaling it dawned on me that maybe it’s not my mind that’s faulty. Rather, perhaps, I have subconsciously redirected my energies, disinterested in expending them on warehousing old or even formulating new memories. (That’s why I keep the journal – it’s all there if ever I want to recall!)

Instead, I have become habituated to an horizon void of familiar landmarks. I am attentive to the world around me, not necessarily for record-keeping purposes but to parse the message inherent to each moment and to plot the next one’s possible trajectories. If you told me ten years ago that at 53 I would be unemployed, sans car or home, all set to blow a significant chunk of my liquidity on a luxury vacation, I’m sure I would have been horrified. The most common descriptors (some might even call them accusations) historically leveled at me by my husband (of almost 20 years) or my (nearing 30-year-old) daughter resided well within the lexicons of control, safety, insurability, strategic planning, forethought, and reliability. Far, far away from any place where I could comfortably admit having no idea where I will be living or what I might be doing next year, let alone in five. But the difference between a rut and a grave is only a matter of inches, as the saying goes. I have not a clue what “retirement” means for me anymore. Retire from what?

Here, a sampling of the dictionary definitions of “retire:”

1. to withdraw, or go away or apart, to a place of privacy, shelter, or seclusion

2. to go to bed

3. to withdraw from office, business, or active life, usually because of age

4. to fall back or retreat in an orderly fashion and according to plan, as from battle, an untenable position,  danger, etc.

5. to withdraw or remove oneself:

In truth, I feel like I spent the years between 34 and 49 in some weird, anachronistic version of retirement, “withdrawn from active life,” half abed, retreating in orderly fashion from any threat. Having amassed a bulwarked identity, I had inadvertently cordoned myself off from change.  The air in my house was stale; its brightly colored walls a pale simulacrum of life’s ever-changing proscenium.  But I was comfortable, middle-class, well-fed, educated, funding multiple retirement accounts. Who cared?

 

***

So I have changed. Not such a big deal. All of us are courageous in one way or another. Getting out of bed each day necessitates an inordinate amount of bravery for some people. As Dewey Bunnell noted in the eponymous song: Oz never did give nothing to the Tin Man that he didn’t already have. The courage I will need in the next few weeks and months is the one that will keep me from looking sideways, comparing the roads that others have chosen to tread with my own. One thing I have not missed about life in SUA is the constant simmer of competition, the stealthy and insidious status markers – the model of one’s car, the size of one’s house, the brand of one’s bag now extending to vacation locations, bands followed, restaurants frequented, the ‘authenticity’ of one’s Instagram feed, for pete’s sake – reminding everyone that there is race to be won. It is tough to fall away from the pack, more so at my age. I’ve been blissfully protected from that harsh reality for the last 38 months; being a Peace Corps Volunteer is a status marker all on its own. But being a Returned Peace Corps (aka retired) Volunteer? Not so much. Unless I manage to insert this particular biographical tidbit into every conversation had in the next decade (BORING,) I will be evaluated and dismissed as one of the less successful competitors in the Game of Life by most people I meet. Because I do not foresee myself returning to the life already lived. Been there, done that, and so on.

Stay tuned  as I strive to continue living mad de acum încolo….