Story to Be Told

This one’s for you Maryam….

I’m one of those people who have spent a significant portion of their lives thinking about how to live, trying to ascertain what ‘happiness’ is, if it’s even something one should aspire to attain, and whether a goal-driven existence is conducive to remaining present, aware, and appreciative of what is.

For years, the conundrum presented by the role of time in shaping not just our experience of life, but how we orient ourselves toward it, has confounded me. Despite my perennial inability to grasp the mathematics that describe them, the theorems of quantum physics fascinate me, especially those that deal with time as a dimension contributing to our particular perception and subsequent construction of reality. We are, in essence, three-dimensional beings who conceptualize time as a separate force that moves us from point A to point B, even though quantum physics has shown us, time and time again (yes, pun intended,) that such is not the case and that time is merely another aspect of space. At the speed of light, the “flow” of time is arrested; one reaches the continuous, undifferentiated present. Nirvana, some might say.

All my life I have experienced moments – sometimes weeks and months – of existential panic: what am I doing, where am I headed, what is the purpose of my life? Am I applying myself diligently to becoming the best I can be? Should I be working harder, giving larger, eating better, exercising more, saving money for a rainy day, fretting about my health, perambulating the globe to see every little thing I can see? I remember, clearly, a definitive demarcation, a tipping point that shifted my internal monologue irrevocably: the moment I knew I was pregnant and heretofore responsible for another human life, my own interests and predilections were summarily shelved. Raising a child, to the best of my abilities (and that did ebb and flow throughout the years) became the plot of the narrative running through my head. I fall for this man because of his huge heart that embraces both me and my daughter; we move here because of the superior school system and safe neighborhoods; I take this job because the hours are conducive to child care; I pursue a graduate degree and further promotions to provide ballet lessons, cheerleading camp, soccer uniforms, ski vacations and chauffeured birthday trips to Disneyland; we create a decades-long routine of unwavering predictability, weather marital storms and abusive bosses, watch our waistlines expand and our alcohol consumption increase; celebrate milestones and mourn the passing of our own youthful energy and exuberance – all to realize the “goal” of raising a child.

Still, there would be nights, usually after a bottle of wine and a desultory attempt to distract myself with a novel, when I would lie staring at the four walls pressing in on me and my heart would begin to flutter, my pores would emit a sheen of cold sweat, and my breath would go in but not out of my chest. That rising panic, the sense that my life was infinitesimally small, that I would live and die in such an incredibly insignificant, flat, colorless and static space, that all the flagrant wanderlust and burning curiosity of my youth had fizzled out and come to nothing – eventually, these crescendo-ing concerns could be countered and soothed by reciting the mantra of parents the world over: I’m doing all this for him/her/them.

Of course, I know now (and probably knew even then, but couldn’t acknowledge it) that this was a just a storyline, a plausible justification for having lost my impetus for adventure and becoming averse to risk, for staying in a stultifying situation that oftentimes did not excite or delight me but provided steady progress toward commonly recognized and respected aspirations. And it did work, remarkably well, actually. We raised a mentally healthy, relatively well-adjusted and emotionally secure human being. It stopped working, however, once she fledged and left me squatting in the abandoned nest, fat and featherless, confronting a wide-open sky that suddenly terrified me in its boundlessness. It is dramatically fitting, I suppose, that it was the baby bird who called it: when I floated the idea of joining Peace Corps, of making a leap of faith into the prevailing winds, she retorted “Well, of course – what in the heck is keeping you here?”

I worried, during the final months of my service, that the existential panic might find its way back to me once I landed stateside. It had been effectively silenced in Moldova by the dramatic arc of overseas service; I had left my country, my family and friends, my language and culture and geography, all that was familiar and routine, to embark on a voluntary adventure that was socially worthy and required a long-term, steadfast commitment. Peace Corps was my new plot, the next volume in the story of my life. It was exciting and challenging and provided a plausible explanation for abandoning an unrewarding job search and depressed economic forecast. I was morally “excused” from any existential fretting for the next three years. It was glorious. Even though, sometime during my second year as a volunteer, I did acknowledge – honestly and without trying to color it differently – that this path I had chosen was just another story, a way of living harmoniously with the circumstances life had thrown at me.

Coming home, I was very conscious of the need to find a new story. My husband had relocated to Ohio – close to his family but far from mine – and I had no clear job prospects, nor any burning desire to have one. I knew my own tendencies, though: I would find some hypothetical timeline or yardstick marked by cultural-, demographic and/or gender-specific goals and then begin reactively taking my measurement against it. If I found myself lagging I would feel like shit about myself for a little (or a long) while and then find the least-stressful and most convenient way to prop myself up. Meanwhile, I would be projecting into a future when I would be decades older yet still alive and healthy and the country and the economy would still look the same and the money I had diligently earned and saved would be sufficient to allow me to live a worry-free existence. Or…I could just stop worrying. Stop measuring myself. Take my eyes off the road ahead and look around me. I could write myself a different story. Volume three. (I AM a multivolume set.)

I admit, I have been waiting for an existential panic attack like one waits for the other shoe. A bad thing happened to me: I lost my job. Then another bad thing happened: my husband lost his job. We were unemployed together for a year; he experienced additional months after I escaped to Moldova. Now I am back, still unemployed and likely to remain so for the unforeseeable future. What should I tell myself? That I need to climb back on the tired horse I’ve already ridden? Adopt the same plotline I had before? (But wait a minute – no child to blame it on…)

I’ve begun to realize that the story is absolutely mine to narrate. I can add in somber music and stormy clouds, a cast of indifferent characters, or a little wizard behind a curtain. I can pitch it as a comedy, a drama, or a cautionary tale. Before, I was a white, middle-class, educated, professionally employed, middle-aged parent who’d gone thick around the middle and a bit dull in the head but had attained the appropriate markers to deem myself a success. Even though I was virtually indistinguishable from so many others around me, I was comfortable that way. Until I wasn’t. Then, through a series of (what I now deem) fortunate circumstances I began to see the outline of a different narrative, another means of interpreting and integrating my circumstances. I could make up my own markers. (I think that’s one of the beautiful revelations of aging: one begins to see through the pre-ordained prescripts of society for what they are: a means of ensuring that a diverse, over-large population can live in close proximity without killing each other while stoking a centralized economy.) But as long as I continue to play by the meta-rules – don’t lie, cheat, steal, hurt, or murder people – I am not required to mindlessly adopt the values or life trajectory that a 21st century, capitalist, technologically-oriented, Western society proscribed for me in order to measure my own worth or the satisfaction I take from my experience. I am my own narrator, the arbiter of how my story is told.

In support of my expressed wish to further practice the craft of writing, my husband once presented me with a marvelous little book called Exercises in Style, by Raymond Queneau. In it, he tells the same innocuous tale – of a crowded bus at midday where one man accuses another of jostling him and subsequently moves to a different seat – ninety-nine different ways, employing, amongst a host of widely varying styles and interpretations, the sonnet and the alexandrine, a Cockney flair, a rhyming slang, pig Latin, an interrogative punch, and permutations by groups of 5, 6, 7 and 8 letters. It is a fascinating display of talent and a perfect illustration of how one seemingly insignificant episode can be cast in distinct molds that change one’s perception of the material.

I used to see this with the kids in foster care: the measure of their resiliency was often demonstrated by the nature of their narrative, what they told themselves about how they ended up where they were. Mostly, there were two or three variations on a victim ideology and these were generally the kids who were depressed, furious, or numb. But there were a notable few who took preternatural hold of their own script, who refused to adopt or fall back on the patterns of behavior that being abused, neglected, emotionally flayed and love starved typically generated. For whatever reason, they were exceptions to the rule. They captained their own ships; even though they did not sail their chosen seas, they decided when to hoist the sails, batten down the hatches, heave ballast, or correct their course. One definitely had the sense that they were in a position to both combat severe weather and soak up sunny skies. I admired them greatly and took courage from their buoyancy.

Currently, I have cast myself in the role of peripatetic celebrant, finding reasons to recognize, honor, and nurture my body, family, friends, skills, and curiosity. I’m not sure of the specific soundtrack yet, but know it has a lot of bass drums, trilling violins and maybe an accordion or two. I haven’t written any bad guys into the plot: perhaps I just haven’t reached that chapter yet or maybe this particular volume won’t call for them. But if some dramatic, unanticipated plot twist should occur and I find my current circumstances profoundly altered, I trust that – having owned and honed this remarkable storytelling ability that all of us time-driven beings have been gifted – I will continue to write my own lines and guide the development of my character.

I still ponder the nature of time and how it propels us seemingly forward but actually just enlarges our circumference, allowing us to take in and incorporate even more diverse aspects of experiential space-time. In occasional flights of existential fantasy, I sometimes extrapolate this to what the other side of life might be like: time-warp velocity to reach the speed of light when the point A to point B narrative is experienced in its totality and there is no distance between the moments and life becomes the iridescent, fabulous coalition of melded pointillist interpretations, kind of like those celebrity portraits comprised of hundreds of separate photos of the same person. When the “I” that is me and the “I” that is you are realized, finally, to be stories told from kaleidoscoping points of view by an unimaginably creative and powerful pulsing of possibility, in and out, in and out.

So many stories to be told. It’s good to be a writer.

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The Road to Nowhere

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.

Life IS Full of Heroism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is this what it’s come to?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Desiderata

Amen.

The Episode with the Kitten

The other day, an hour or so after another momentous thunderstorm, I was walking up the muddy river that serves as a road in more temperate conditions when I happened upon a weeks-old kitten perched precariously on a rock jutting just above the rushing water. Yapping dogs lined the road’s perimeter, but apparently none of them were ready to brave the water in order to munch the wee morsel.

Steeling myself against sentiment, I shooed away the dogs and continued on to the store.  I have had little patience with PCVs who adopt animals here: unless one plans on making a permanent home in Moldova, how fair is it to subvert an animal’s natural instincts by accustoming it to hand-feeding, doting attention and a warm, dry sanctuary?

Ten minutes later, on the way back, a thinly bleated chorus of mews wafted up to greet me.  The kitten was no longer in the road but I could hear it crying close by.  Again, I steeled myself.  You must not interfere, I told myself sternly.  There are hundreds – most likely thousands – of stray kittens and puppies born each year in Moldova that will not survive a month, much less their first winter.  If I had not happened down this path at just this moment I would never know about this one.  But the mewling seemed to get louder and more desperate as I left it behind.

I recited all the logical reasons why rescuing a kitten was not a rational move on a my part: I live within a community where pets are not cultivated (the one dog that hangs around the center is not allowed indoors, nor provided any food other than kitchen scraps. I am the only one who pets it;) my income is barely sufficient to feed myself;  I am away from site for days at a time; I cannot afford to spay or obtain vaccines; it probably has a ton of worms and fleas; yada, yada, yada. All these valiant attempts at hardening my heart steadily weakened as the calls grew more piercing and urgent in my wake.

So I did what any other smart PCV would do: upon my arrival back at the center I posed the question to another volunteer who happened to be staying the night with me.  “Tell me, should I rescue this kitten?” Of course, Georgiana immediately leapt to the call of an animal in need.  Arming ourselves with a bag and a pair of sturdy gloves, we set off back down the road to retrieve said kitten.

Only what we found was TWO kittens, cowering under a low carpet of bushes, soaked to the skin and shivering, almost skeletal with hunger.  Great.  One of them – a tabby with the big mouth that I had already seen in the road – was readily amenable to being picked up and placed in the bag.  The other, a Russian Blue, was decidedly not.  It scampered even further into the bushes, spitting and hissing for all its 2 ounces worth.  Oh well, I thought, I really didn’t bargain for more than one anyway. But Georgiana was now on a mission; she determinedly flattened the bushes right after it and caught it within seconds.

Damn.

***

Soon after finding them a box and warm blanket, we introduced them to the three young Dutch volunteers that are currently staying at my center.  One of them, Leonie, immediately fell in love. She had one or both of them curled up into her neck for the remainder of the day, and took them both to sleep with her that night.  Poftim.

I began formulating a convincing argument for why it would be good for HER to adopt two Moldovan kittens and take them home to Holland.  She was easy to convince.  Soon, she was researching transport options and firing off emails to an aunt back home who had successfully adopted several cats and dogs during her life travels.

The next day, the tabby disappeared. Leonie accidently stepped on it while taking off her muddy shoes after a run. It appeared to be unharmed and scampered off into the bushes.  But later on when she went to bring the kittens in for the night, it was gone.  This caused her a great deal of anguish and not a few tears; how can I admit to be slightly relieved that we were back to the original one I had first envisioned rescuing?  It was doubly sad that it was the tabby – the one that fostered my sympathy in the first place with his persistent cries.

However, now there’s Jane.  That’s what Leonie has named the Russian Blue, the one now so attached to people that she sets up a fuss whenever you walk away. And it looks as if she will be staying with me, after all.  Though a process does exist for adopting animals and exporting them to other countries, it is complicated, tedious, expensive and time-consuming; certainly beyond anything Leonie can manage in her remaining week in Moldova.

***

For a time, I watched a television show called How I Met Your Mother.  There is a character on the show, Robin Scherbatsky, who fantastically kept five dogs of various sizes in her tiny New York apartment.  Despite Robin only being home perhaps one episode out of 20, these dogs appeared placid and happy, not requiring food, or walks, or attention, apparently going to sleep for long stretches of weeks whilst Robin cavorted about New York with her friends.  Her furniture stayed pristine, big clumps of hair did not collect on the carpet and numerous throw pillows on her living room couch remained miraculously intact. Those of us who live with dogs – especially without the benefit of large suburban backyards or rural fields to set them loose in – know that five dogs in an 800 square foot apartment is a recipe for certain disaster, if not complete and irrevocable destruction of all one’s favored belongings.

This is one aspect of modern media that contributes to our continued naiveté in approaching the mechanics of our lives.  I remember my daughter pining for Carrie Bradshaw’s life in Sex and the City, a part-time newspaper columnist who inexplicably could afford Manolo Blahnik shoes, long lunches at high-end eateries, and a darling apartment in Manhattan.  When I would insert my (unsought) opinion that the likelihood of an actual columnist’ salary supporting such an extravagant lifestyle was pretty unlikely, she would froth and foam at my nitpicking lack of imagination.  Couldn’t I just appreciate the story?

I should no more adopt a cat in Moldova than Robin Scherbatsky should cram five canines into a New York walk-up.  But we continue to fool ourselves by referencing the glut of misleading, manipulative entertainment and advertising that does its concerted best to get us to watch, buy, and consume by convincing us that we are all better people for doing so.   We tell ourselves the stories that we fervently wish to believe about life.  And here I go with mine.  I still don’t think I’ve done Jane any favors in the end by bringing her into my life.  But, at least for this episode, she seems happy and I feel just a tad bit better for having ‘rescued’ her from an uncertain fate.  Catch me next season to see how the story progresses….

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Leonie and Jane – inseparable!

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Vara #3: New Projects (or how serendipity infuses my PC service)

According to Wikipedia, the word „serendipity” is one of the hardest to translate in the English language.  Perhaps this is due to the amorphous nature of the experiences it attempts to pinpoint.  There are fortuitous things that happento  us so unexpectedly, from such unanticipated sources or directions, that at times it is difficult to not percieve the pointing finger of a god or the shadowy trail of a red thread leading one on.  And perhaps this how other cultures/languages describe it: through religion, or mythic archetypes, or the unspooling of one’s fate.  We Anglo-Saxons term it “a talent for making fortunate discoveries while searching for other things.”

Straw bale construction. These are used to build houses, walls, and benches.
Straw bale construction. These are used to build houses, walls, and benches.

Some months into the period of unemployment which preceded my Peace Corps service, I stumbled upon the concept of “intentional communities” or “co-housing,” as it is known in some circles.  Back in the day, we would have termed these alternate living styles “communes” but the whole concept has evolved and adapted through the decades to better fit the myriad identities, lifestyle choices, and personal philosophies of most Western Europeans and Americans.  These are communities sometimes, but not always, based on particular political views, philosophical principles, or religious beliefs.  Most often, they represent a desire to live in closer proximity and connection to one’s neighbors; to own in common those resources, like lawn mowers and ladders and paint brushes and socket wrenches, that we may only utilize once or twice a month; to have the opportunity to partake in a collective meal two or three times a week and forego shopping, preparing, serving, and cleaning up after a long day at work; to build small neighborhoods devoid of cars and asphalt; in short, to move out of that weird idea that living entirely in an enclosed, private space (suburban home) from which we emerge only to enter another enclosed private space (automobile) to travel alone to yet another enclosed, private space (the office or cubicle) somehow meets the needs of social animals.

Feeling cut off from the world and as thoroughly rejected as only a soon-to-be-fifty, suddenly-unemployed, worked-at-one-job-for-practically-my-whole-life person can feel, this idea of living collectively more than intrigued me – it lit a burning candle of longing that fed countless hours of research and many inopportune proposals to friends, family, and acquaintances to throw in our lots together, buy piece of land, and start some sort of eco-social living arrangement.  (I think they thought I’d gone off the deep end.)

It was one of the few simmering fires left when I boarded the plane to Moldova; I consoled myself with the notion that perhaps someday in the future, upon my return from Peace Corps, I could resurrect and tend it to fruition.

***

Interestingly, some months later during a sidebar conversation with my then-COD Program Manager Liliana, I was intrigued by her mention of a project conceived by her (former PCV) husband David to build an ‘eco-village’ from natural, native-harvested materials in Moldova.  They had both been researching different building types and designs, real estate offerings, and incorporation options with the intent of forming an NGO devoted to sustainable living that would also serve as a platform for launching their own co-housing community.  I must have related my own interest in this particular brand of habitation.

Last February Liliana surprised us all by resigning from the Peace Corps to pursue this project on a full time basis.  She and David spent many weeks traveling in the USA and Ukraine, visiting similarly positioned communities, networking, gathering data and comparing outcomes.  They are passionate and intentioned and fully loaded with information.  Now, they are ready to commence.  And the biggest, most serendipitous aspect for me in all this is that they have invited me to help.  Apparently, during this sidebar conversation that I barely remember having I impressed on Liliana my like-minded interest in living communally, a notion largely at odds with the impression that most Moldovans form of Americans and their typical bent for self-inflicted privacy.  She remembered me.

The gazebo we will be building on the grounds of the shelter
The gazebo we will be building on the grounds of the shelter

In the way that these circumstances play out, there is a connection between the amazing long-term care center for adults where I live and David and Liliana’s project: Liliana and her mother were part of the core group which conceived and built this shelter 10 years ago.  Liliana’s mom still works here and has gained permission for model structures composed of these natural materials to be built here this summer as concrete examples of what an eco-village might look like someday.  I am now charged with creating and implementing a fundraiser to complement this endeavor.

An oven with surrounding benches - also in the plans for the shelter
An oven with surrounding benches – also in the plans for the shelter
Tiles that can be purchased, personalized and added to the structures as a fundraising option
Tiles that can be purchased, personalized and added to the structures as a fundraising option

Which then led to the shelter’s director asking me to assist with a eco-social tourism project connecting our center with one in Chisinau and another in Brasov, Romania, that will entail hosting (paying) vacationers to come volunteer for a 10-14 days at all three sites.  It’s cutting-edge social entrepreneurism, an arena that I have been mad about entering but felt completely unqualified to entertain.  And now I’ve been invited to participate in building it from the ground up!

A camouflaging wall that will be built as a model of construction capabilities
A camouflaging wall that will be built as a model of construction capabilities

I’ve also, quite inadvertently, become a consultant to a youth-run NGO, Cultura Noua, which is comprised of a group of talented, idealistic young people who are intent on learning English, leadership skills, and project management.  When it rains, it flows…

***

I just re-read a posting of mine from mid-winter, when I was sunk in a vortex of confusion and lost-identity.  I am so relieved that I made it to the other side.  I am so busy right now that I am having to bow out of opportunities that I blindly clutched at when my days were empty but which no longer match the excitement and opportunity that are coming at me from all sides.

Serendipity does translate into Romanian, after all.

Maybe not in so many words, but definitely into the narrative of everyday experience.

A Blazing Sun

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

Henry Miller from The Cosmological Eye

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

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

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

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

My anxiety about going home increased.

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

Femeia frumoasa
Femeia frumoasa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My BFFs
My BFFs

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

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

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

An Appeal for Volunteerism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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