By the time you read this, I will have about 90 days remaining in my Peace Corps Service, a period of my life that will amount to 1186 days when I finally board my last plane out of Moldova this coming September. Because, no – unlike those volunteers who wax rhapsodic about the attachment they have to their country of service and make passionate promises about returning again someday – I can honestly say I do not intend to ever come back here. I have too few years left and too many other destinations piling up on the bucket list. And 39 months has given me sufficient time to feel as if I’ve truly plumbed what life is like here.
Now that social media, blogs, and other online forums like Medium and Quora have provided the platform, it has become increasingly de rigueur for volunteers, as they near the golden threshold represented by that most hallowed of Peace Corps acronyms, “COS,” to reflect back on the ups and downs of their service to distill the essential wisdom hard won from the experience. Akin to making every graduate a valedictorian, the internet allows us to pontificate our particular distillations without concern for their interest or relevance to our readers’ lives.
I had not intended to fall victim to this particular pomposity; in many ways, I have been concerned over the past year that my blog attempts had devolved into navel-focused meanderings through my own emotional landscapes. I quit writing so much and tried to pay better attention to living in the moment, to accepting that there would be ups and downs, sometimes many within one day, and that taking the time necessary to record any particular episode only anchored me in the perpetual-passed.
I am breaking with this intent, however, because I want to ask you – you – to do something for me. Or not for me, exactly, but perhaps in recognition of the price I paid – that all international volunteers pay, whatever program may sponsor them – by spending a significant chunk of time serving in a foreign land, away from family, life-long friends, and other emotional support systems. I ceded a great deal of control by becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer – control over my living conditions, my work environment, and my social context, while simultaneously relinquishing basic freedoms and amenities that I had taken for granted since leaving my parents’ home and becoming an adult so many years ago. In ways too numerous to count, living as a dependent alien in a host country has been a bit like returning to the roller coaster of one’s teenage years. Angst-filled, existential concerns are suddenly teeming like slippery silver-fish again within your brain:
Am I good enough, smart enough? Do I have the requisite persistence, drive, ambition, self-esteem? Will I fit in? Does that person like me? What did I do to make her mad? Why won’t they talk to me? Why is everything so hard to understand? Why can’t I seem to do anything right? Where is my meaningful impact? My noteworthy project? My sustainable program? My definitive success?
And while no single explanation can encapsulate why some volunteers make it through their service while so many don’t, I suspect that it is the psychological, not the physical, challenges that take the highest toll. Peace Corps is not so forthcoming in their recruitment efforts about the astounding rates of early termination (ET) from some countries. One of the biggest accomplishments that many of us celebrate is actually making it to our Close-Of-Service date. (For example, Moldova has roughly a 42% ET rate: two of every five volunteers leave here before completing their service.) I probably spend more time talking with other volunteers about emotional health issues than any other single topic, and all of us must contend with the sadness and regret, tinged more often than we’ll admit with a bit of envy, which accompanies the disclosure that yet another volunteer is throwing in the towel.
As I begin to pack up my life again, I happened upon the journal that that I kept from 2012-13 and thumbed through the entries comprising my first few months in country. It was unsettling to recall how displaced I felt, how much stress and anxiety I channeled onto the page, how many references I made to missing home, how deeply I questioned my ability to make it for another month, much less to the distant horizon of a second year. My first winter in Moldova was one of the most challenging experiences in my life: I felt exiled, depressed, in physical pain almost all the time (my back! my knee!) and was failing to find any source of comfort in my surroundings.
So the fact that I made it – not only through the requisite 27 months, but for an additional 12 after that – attests to a special element of my experience here, one that made a significant difference in my mental health and the way I have experienced my Peace Corps service since that bleak time. And that element is a vibrant oasis called Rasarit – Sunrise – for which I will make my plea.
Please stay with me here while I present my case…
Through a series of fortuitous failures and serendipitous connections, I was transferred from my original site in spring of 2013 to Straseni, a district seat 25 km northwest of Chisinau. I was granted temporary residence in a spacious apartment at the Rasarit Center of the Neoumanist Association, a non-profit that provides residential and home-care services to impoverished and socially vulnerable seniors in the town of Straseni and its surrounding villages. While the tacit agreement was for me to find an alternate residence within a matter of months, rentals within my stipend amount were either non-existent or (in the case of the only one I did locate) so incredibly dilapidated and unsafe Peace Corps would not approve my living there. And I must confess: having spent the entire winter dwelling amongst all my earthly possessions piled within the musty confines of a 10’x12′ spare bedroom that had mold growing up the walls, I was basking in the luxury of having my own kitchen, bathroom, and capacious bedroom, complete with cathedral ceilings and six foot windows. I was loathe to give them up.
But more than the physical issues of space and comfort, I began to thrive in the unprecedented atmosphere of joy and infectious positivity that permeates the environment at Rasarit and its companion program Spectru (Rainbow.) Here, I was being hugged multiple times a day, emerging into a sea of smiling faces whenever I opened my front door, wading through respectful caresses and cheek kisses each time I navigated the corridor. The employees went out of their way to assist me, finding me blankets and cooking implements, relocating furniture and supplying extension cords, inquiring after my mood and health, and (oh Tania!) occasionally presenting me with a piping hot, homemade donut on a Sunday morning. The beneficiaries of the day-care programs, seniors who primarily live alone on a grossly inadequate pension (around $50/mo) have created a strong and abiding community within Rasarit. They sing and dance together, play cards, knit and crotchet, do handicrafts, garden, and watch television. The most obvious quality every visitor notices, however, is the happiness, the laughter, all the brilliant smiles made shinier by golden teeth!
I emphatically believe that the beneficiaries and employees of Neoumanist are the reason why I am still in Moldova, two-plus years after that horrifically depressing winter. They brought me into their community, gifting me with a “host” family of more than a hundred members, each one of whom greets me merrily each day and demonstrates genuine concern over my well-being. I can’t possibly convey through words, to them or you, how grateful I am for having had the opportunity to live among them. What I have vowed to do, instead, is make an impassioned request to my friends and family, and to those readers who have followed my journey through all its tumultuous twists and turns to make a contribution to the center in my name, in recognition of both my service and the challenges that accompany international volunteerism in general.
Many of you have expressed to me your support, respect, and admiration for my courage in coming to Moldova and for my stamina in fulfilling my commitment despite numerous setbacks and disappointments. I am fully aware, also, that the particular circumstances that afforded me the opportunity to do this – having no debt or familial obligations or health issues – are definitely blessings that not many people have fortuitously coincide. But to those of you who could imagine yourself doing this sort of thing, given different life circumstances; or to those of you who volunteer less dramatically, but certainly no less effectively, within your own communities; or even to those of you who may have served in Peace Corps or are thinking seriously about doing so in the future, I ask this:
Please consider making a donation to the seniors and employees of the Rasarit Center so that they can repair the roof of the building that is so essential to their thriving, nurturing, life-affirming community. This is the place where many of them receive the only hot, nutritious meal of their day, where they can wash their clothes, take a shower, or receive therapeutic massage, where they feel warm in the winter, stay dry when it rains, and – most important of all – come together in laughter and love, supporting one another in the absence of family members who mostly work in other countries. The current roof is not only leaking, it was built with asbestos-laden materials and now that it is breaking down those materials pose a serious hazard to people who already suffer fragile and uncertain health. It also puts at risk more than 30 employees who provide daily care and treatment for them. (Not to mention any future volunteers who may serve this community.)
This Global Giving campaign was put online at my insistence: the Neoumanist staff responsible for finding funds for projects such as these were not convinced that people in the United States, who have never visited here nor heard about the center and its work, could possibly care about their roof. However, I have faith that there are people out there who care about me and who would be willing to celebrate my successful service by making a donation – in whatever amount they deem appropriate – to the community that was largely responsible for that success. This would mean so much to me. Even a small amount – five or ten dollars – will make an impact, as Neoumanist has been granted a limited trial period on the Global Giving site in which to recruit a minimum 40 one-time donors to its campaign. Having a permanent presence on Global Giving would expand their access to potential donors exponentially and make it significantly easier for the handful of regular donors that currently support their work to make payment (currently these are received by bank transfer.)
For those of you who want to know more, this is an 8-minute video made by a former PCV which shows how the center looked when it was founded and what it looks like today. You will see many of the elderly who attend my English class every Thursday. You will hear from them how much Rasarit means to their happiness, health and well-being. This is the place where I have lived since March 2013 and these are the folks who have been my family. The last line in the video reminds us that “The best medicine for aging people is attention, and love.”I would add that it is also the best medicine for despondent and lonely Peace Corps Volunteers who are desperately missing home….
I know it is common to ask for donations to be made to designated charities in memory of a person who has died. Fortunately, I am not dead! I am happy, healthy, and tremendously thankful to have been given the chance to serve as a United States Peace Corps Volunteer, representing all that is best about my country while living for three years in another nation that has never enjoyed anything close to the same freedom, opportunity, and privilege with which we have been so blessed. So I am asking you, from the bottom of my heart, please show these incredibly generous and warm-hearted people that you are, too, by going to the Global Giving “A New Roof for the Elderly” campaign, pressing the “gift or in-honor of” button on the right, and gift whatever amount you can in appreciation of your country, your grandparents, volunteers who have made a difference in your life, or my Peace Corps service specifically.
You would honor me in the best way possible; I – and they – appreciate so much, whatever you can afford.
Tatiana, one of cooks at the senior center where I live, stops me as I emerge from the laundry room. Her shy smile gleams in the dim corridor, her hands drift up out of the darkness, cradling a piping hot donut. The smell of them has been driving me crazy all morning as it wafts through the weekend-empty center, wreathing my apartment in the smell of yeasty goodness. My refrigerator is bare, victim of a busy workweek and a lazy proprietor; I haven’t had the motivation to get dressed yet, much less trudge to the market. Manna from heaven seals the deal: I am glad to be back home in Moldova.
For a few days, I’ll admit now, it was touch and go.
Back in July, the United States had welcomed me back with abundance, diversity, energy and climactic beauty. From the moment my plane touched down, the infusion began: a smorgasbord of food and ethnic restaurants; the physical presence of family and friends with the cornucopia of attendant emotions that reconnecting brings; late-model vehicles that at times, unbelievably, held me, alone; store aisles and city streets and national parks (national parks!) teeming with a vast display of the world’s heterogeneity; background noise that was comprehensible, be it radio, TV, elevator music, or the couple at the next table; and always, everywhere, people smiling, eyes connecting, greetings freely tossed between passersby, laughter shared in lines. I traveled to California, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and Ohio, touching down briefly in Chicago and DC; every single place felt like home.
Leaving was rough. Around the second week of September, when the end was in sight, a little pit of discontent nestled down behind my heart. I immediately began to stuff it full of trivial, idiosyncratic goodbyes – so long sidewalks; later labels written in English; bye-bye blasting shower heads; be seeing you housecats, ice cubes, parking lots, landscaping, yummy Greek yogurt – leaving as little room as possible for the murky, seeping melancholia of separation from the meaningful: husband, daughter, grandmother, parents, brothers, nieces and nephews, former colleagues and schoolmates and best friends forever: all the faces who hold my history, reflect my truths and anchor my memories.
When I had first landed in Orange County, my husband called me, his excitement pulsing through the telephone pinholes, raining down like little candy hearts onto my eardrums: “You’re on the same continent!” he raved. “I could walk to where you are!” Understand that at the time he was still 1,800 miles away in Cincinnati, Ohio. But they were land miles. In the event of a cataclysmic, world-altering event, theoretically, we could find each other. It was, in some deeply comforting, inexplicable way, exciting. But now, here I was about to put an ocean and the breadth of another continent between us.
I was casting off again…
Arriving back in Chișinău after 15 hours of flying, 7 time zone changes and no sleep wasn’t conducive to a good mood at the outset. But I am lucky to have friends outside of the PC community by this time, so thankfully I didn’t have to wrestle two suitcases and a backpack onto the airport rutiera or pay the exhorbitant taxi fee that is standard fare for foreigners, regardless if you speak the language. A wonderful couple attached to the US Embassy picked me up and we had a great dinner at one of the nicer restaurants catering to ex-pats, ennabling me to delay full re-entry for a couple more hours. After enduring the 30 minute bumper car traffic out of Chisinău into my village, then the cratered dusty road leading to my center, only to find the entry gate locked, however, all vestiges of America had sailed away. Despite three emails and a text notification sent during the preceding 24 hours, I had to initiate a series of relayed phone calls as we stood outside the gate in order to evoke a keyholder from the residential center to let me in.
Since moving to Moldova, I have made exactly seven trips outside its borders. This was the first time I didn’t feel welcomed home. Due to an agreement I made when I first moved in, periodically I must move out of my apartment in order to accommodate specific volunteers who have been friends of the center since its inception. During the nine weeks I was in the US these volunteers visited, so I had had to pack up all my belongings in bags and boxes prior to my departure. Upon my return this time, I was greeted by a bare mattress, gaping refrigerator and larder, empty hangers, and a thin film of dust on the counters. And, in a huge departure from the usual, Buddy and Little Sheba (the center’s dogs) had not bounded out to greet me when I came through the gate. I learned the next morning that they had been summarily eliminated, along with many of the village dogs, during a mysterious night of gunshots for which no has claimed responsibilty or been held accountable. It was all decidely depressing.
And to top it off, I had to hit the ground running. It takes a lot longer than 36 hours to recover from jet lag and seven time zone changes; unfortunately that was all that I had prior to having to embark on a whirlwind schedule of trainings, appoinments, meetings, and my new partnership with Novateca (more about that in another post.) I continued to want to fall asleep at 2:30 or 6:30 (PM) and awaken at 12:30 or 2:30 (AM.) It took eight days to fully unpack and at least ten days for a semblance of diurnal normalcy to find me again. I felt disoriented and uncharacteristically disconsolate, set adrift in a manner I’ve only experienced two or three times in this lifetime. There had been too much warmth and acceptance, conections and laughter, comfort and familiarity, control and convenience, to have it so quickly snatched away. This time there was not the excitement of the unknown to bouy me; the adventure had already been had. My fellow M27s have, for the most part, moved on – to graduate school, extended travel, career track jobs, marriage and babies. My footsteps echo in a hollow space.
But let’s not end on such a somber note. Today was the first day since I’ve returned that has been totally mine. I had nowhere to be and nothing I had to accomplish. I got some laundry done and cooked up a pot of beans. I am writing on the awesome new laptop which my generous husband paid DHL a dear amount to deliver safely to me; I’ve spent the greater part of the day poking around her menus, caressing her touch screen, and courting her thinly veiled charms. The cool of autumn is gilding the leaves red and gold outside my window. It is 46 degrees and I’m beginning to don the layers (93 degrees in Huntington Beach today – are you kidding me???) And a sweet angel gifted me a homemade donut when I was hungry. Already, again, this foreign life is settling in around me, becoming home once more.
You were born together, and together you shall be forevermore. You shall be together when white wings of death scatter your days. Aye, you shall be together even in the silent memory of God. But let there be spaces in your togetherness, and let the winds of the heavens dance between you. Love one another but make not a bond of love: Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls. Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup. Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf. Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone, Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music. Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping. For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts. And stand together, yet not too near together: For the pillars of the temple stand apart, And the oaktreeand the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.
– Kahlil Gibran “On Marriage”
I came of age in the 1970’s, a point in time when the pithy wisdoms contained in Gibran’s little book The Prophet tripped off every hippy-gypsy’s lips. I am sure I attended more than one wedding which highlighted this verse prominently within the invitation or featured it somewhere in the vows. Blue Mountain Cards appropriated and soon exhausted its sentiment (along with those on friendship, love, children, pain, and death, ad nausea.) Everyone I knew I had a self-annotated, coffee-stained, broken-spined copy lying about somewhere in the house. And I think most of us consigned them to the used book bin at the library sometime during the late 80s or early 90s, fearing that it branded one a literati imposter to even the most casual observer of one’s bookshelves (and we all know we make those judgments, don’t we?)
It’s a shame, as I doubt that many of us who were so enamored then by Gibran’s aphoristic prose truly had lived long enough to understand its rutted truths, ground out from endless repetition and the weight of heavy loads. Very few of us had married, borne children, experienced pain, grieved death. We thought we loved. We didn’t know the half of it. I don’t believe that many of us had been threshed naked, sifted free of husks, ground to whiteness, or kneaded into pliancy, as Gibran describes it, by age 17 or 23.
Coming across this verse by accident today, I read it over again with a deep and resonating pleasure. And I it made me realize that I have wanted for some time to address all the unspoken questions, speculations, and (sometimes) judgments I feel vibrating in my wake when people learn that I am married yet serving in Peace Corps without my spouse. I watch their eyes widen, their brows twitch, their mouths open and close as they quickly formulate an innocuous response to a non-traditional notion of marriage that appears to include living 6,000 miles apart. For twenty-seven months. And now add another twelve on top of that…let’s just admit that the winds of heaven have been enjoying quite the prolonged waltz between M and me.
For a long, long time, over 20 years in fact, M and I devoted concerted effort to cocooning ourselves within a comfort zone. We went to our jobs every day, which for a number of years were close enough to allow us to drive to work and/or have lunch together once or twice a week. We cleaned our house in tandem on the weekends. We ate dinner out often, went to movies, shopped at Costco, and walked the dogs. Together. We lived in a nice condo in a beautiful city with thousands of acres of hiking and biking trails surrounding us. The Pacific Ocean was a fifteen minute drive away. We made decent salaries and were able to save towards retirement. Like bunnies in a self-imposed hutch, we were warm, fed, plump, and circumscribed. And over time the cramp set in.
I can’t put my finger on it, even now, but I surmise – for me – it was the absolute predictability of it, day after day, year after year. I caught myself entertaining thoughts of a calamity, a catastrophic earthquake or tsunami that might come along and wipe our slate clean, forcing us to feel the wind again, to stretch our muscles and reach for something we couldn’t just buy. We had been huddled down and comfortable for so long, eating the same bread, drinking from the same cup, there was very little space in our togetherness. Now, rabbits can live this way, and rats and hamsters and, I imagine, some people, too. But it seemed, to me at least, that we were standing on each other’s shadows, breathing a stale and listless air, jammed too close to sing and dance or even quiver with the music. Year by year we grew more peevish with each other, prone to magnifying perceived slights and reading our books in different rooms.
Recently, I read an interview with Esther Perel, therapist and author of the book Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence; her 2013 TED talk on the subject has received over 4.5 million hits. She brings what I consider a novel approach to questions of marital discontent, strife, and infidelity: why do we imagine that our spouse can (or even should) be the only person to fulfill our every need for challenge, surprise, delight, wonder, curiosity, and amazement in our lives? While simultaneously serving as a grounding anchor, a reliable lighthouse beacon, a calm berth from storm-tossed seas, and a fire extinguisher if called upon. We expect so much from marriage these days, demanding nothing less than a ‘soul mate’ who will be the yin to our yang and soothe that ache we construe to be the severed chord that joined us before birth. We tell ourselves that there is someone out there who will finally “get” me, solve me, make me feel complete.
Only it doesn’t happen that way. And sometimes, many times in fact, when we’re feeling incomplete, misunderstood, kicked about by life, or maybe just plain bored to tears and that same ache – the one that was supposedly relieved by your soul mate – is back yawning and throbbing with an ever-increasing intensity, you find a most rational argument for turning round and blaming said soul mate for being such an awful hutch mate. Because if they weren’t so inconsiderate/ornery/stubborn/selfish/stupid/ insensitive/lazy/driven/blind/boring/batshit crazy (circle one or, better yet, several) then my life wouldn’t be so miserable right now, would it? Perhaps he or she is not ‘the one’, after all? Maybe there’s someone else out there waiting for me?
And it is exactly this type of rationale, Perel says, that can prove fatal to a marriage. Because maybe it isn’t him or her at all that’s the problem. Maybe you were expecting the unrealizable from marriage. Maybe there is no one out there who can fill the hole. Maybe it’s your own damn hole to fill.
Within a space of two months both M and I lost our jobs. I had been with mine for twenty years. He was let go four days before Christmas. This was 2010, when the economy was still flat on its back, barely twitching, giving no signs of recovery. Here was our tsunami, in some ways subtler but with a longer, more penetrating thrust. For many months we were like fossils pushing through a life that was gradually stiffening into amber. In the beginning it was novel, fun even, as if we were vacationing on Groundhog Day; work existed out there somewhere, tomorrow, but tomorrow never showed up. As if by rote, we still shopped at Costco, ate dinner out, and walked the dogs, only now twice or three times a day because we could. Eventually, we did stop cleaning the house, as weekends were no different than any other day and really we just stopped caring. After a number of months, it dawned on us that eating out was expensive; we began eating alone, behind closed doors, in front of screens. Our diurnal clocks gradually diverged; we would pass in the hallway at 5:00am, me, headed to the kitchen for coffee, M back to the bedroom for sleep. Our computers were in separate rooms and one day I realized we were sending each other emails rather than walking 20 feet to talk. It was as if we had both suffered the same paralyzing accident and each of us was waiting desultorily for the other, in some unacknowledged manner, to salvage things. In marriage, sometimes the lines between love and dependency can become indistinguishable.
Until one day, scrolling through online jobsites, my pointer strayed onto an advertisement for Peace Corps. Well that’s a blast from the past. I stared. Peace Corps is still around? Impulsively, I clicked. And suddenly the murky film that had been occluding my head for months was gone. Here it was, my life preserver, the raft that would carry me across the threshold I’d been stuck on for a decade. As I explored country options, volunteer living conditions, and program assignments, I felt an excitement that had been absent from my life for years and years come thundering back, returning to center stage. Here was what I wanted – nay, needed to do for me. I finally admitted to myself something I had been deliberately avoiding. I didn’twant to salvage my old life. I did not want to do any of it, anymore, at all. I hadn’t for a number of years. And it had nothing to do with M, the person who he was, the way we interacted or his treatment of me. He just happened to be the current participant in a life I no longer wished to lead. Now, a distant horizon beckoned me. Accompanied or alone, I was joining Peace Corps.
As it turned out, it was alone. Was it fair of me – to announce my plan and expect that it would be his solution, too? No, just as it was not fair to expect his solution to satisfy me. We had both come to a crossroad in our respective lives, lives that had been moving in parallel fashion for so long that we sort of forgot we were distinct people with separate feet that could tread different paths. It wasn’t easy on either of us to take the necessary steps to seal the deal – sell the condo, shed two decades of stuff, say goodbye to a lifestyle that so many others were striving to attain. I just kept putting one foot in front of the other, dead certain that this was the road I was supposed to be taking. And on June 3, 2012, we hugged goodbye. He drove away and I trundled the two suitcases that represented all my material belongings into LAX.
Recently, M and I spent a number of months together. And I reveled in both the familiarity and the novelty of his presence. He is my husband, my partner of 20-odd years. He looked the same and talked the same and exhibited the same quick wit and formidable intelligence. Yet there are things about him that were different. He has taken up cooking and is trying different foods (gone, the cheese-on-a-disk that was his go-to meal for decades.) He has backed away from political websites and rants and embraced the idiosyncratic philosophy of Hondo. Then moved across the country and found a new job in a completely different environment. Now he sends me self-composed haikus and calls me several times a weeks He is lighter, more joyful and positive, less prone to taking umbrage at the stupid things I say. (In fact, we recently discovered that his elf name is Happy Sparkle-pants.)
As for me, I count myself doubly blessed. I’ve seen a person – myself – emerge from a stifling cocoon of business suits and office politics and monthly bills and cookie-cutter days to re-inhabit the long skirts and funky jewelry and idealistic dreams and life without money that I thought were gone with my 20s. I’m fulfilling a long-cherished fantasy to live and work in a foreign country. I am seeing myself reflected in new people’s eyes, people whom I admire, and whose friendship I am grateful to have gained. I have accomplished things of which I’m proud. I no longer dream of earthquakes. Life’s horizons stretch out before me. The cage door has been flung open and I am definitely dancing and quivering to the music.
And when all is said and done I know I’ve still got that oak tree growing right alongside me, and together, standing separately, we’re holding up the temple of our beautiful, sustainable marriage. Now, I know that I have loved.
Zoe, my erstwhile canine companion, died today. My husband called at 2:30am (my time) to tell me. I know he woke me up because it’s hard to be alone with the blank space of loss. The world has changed in some immeasurable, ineffable way. A little cameo has been erased and yet the tableau of life remains largely the same, unaffected. Needless to say, it’s now 7:30am and I have not gone back to sleep.
I use the possessive adjective “my” with Zoe very loosely. First, because I have always been a tad uncomfortable subscribing to the notion of owning any living being. Sure, I had responsibility for feeding, sheltering, and caring for Zoe – but the same was true of my daughter and I couldn’t pretend to own her (not even when she was two!) But mostly it doesn’t feel right using ‘my’ with Zoe because she was not a dog that ceded to a relationship of that sort. My husband and I used to joke that Zoe might have thought she was a cat since she was raised with them in the absence of other dogs for the first two years of her life. Her temperament was certainly more feline than canine. She never saw the point of chasing balls or sticks. She liked to sit, paws tucked beneath her, on the back of the couch in front of our big picture window in Irvine, watching the world go buy. She did not tolerate being picked up or held with much grace, but she would stretch beside you on her own terms to nap. She was definitely not a lap dog and thank god she didn’t yap.
One hears, with a trickle of tears usually, tales of dogs that have lost their owners traveling hundreds – sometimes thousands – of miles searching for them, prostrating themselves on a grave, showing up at 5 each day to meet a train, curling up with a coat or scarf, refusing to eat, or move, or play again. Wow! What loyalty and unconditional love, we think. What a wonderful companion. How lucky that person was to have that animal’s unwavering affection! Well, that wasn’t Zoe. Loyalty was not an integral aspect of her character.
Throughout the entire eighteen months prior to my leaving for the Peace Corps, Zoe and I were together twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. I wasn’t working. My only form of recreation was walking, which I did, day in and day out, sometimes six or seven miles a day, Zoe by my side. We took a four month road trip during that time, visiting twenty-three states, camping the entire way. She went places most suburban dogs will never have the opportunity to visit. She was a finicky eater and I spent many hours (and way too much money) searching for the perfect dog food to entice her. She accompanied me in the car whenever I ran errands (much to the chagrin of Irvine Animal Control – but we won’t go there.) When I said goodbye to her in June of 2012, she didn’t acknowledge in any way my impending disappearance from her world. As I cried, she cocked her head and looked at me quizzically (while I’m thinking “NOTE THE SUITCASES, DUMB DOG!!!! This is it – you’re supposed to KNOW AND BE SAD!) My husband reported that she actually began eating better in my absence.
When I returned for a visit home in May 2013, my daughter had her iPhone cocked, finger on the trigger, ready to record the emotional reunion. (We had watched too many YouTube videos of Iraqi veterans on kitchen floors under a dog pile.) I crept up to the front door, then opened it quickly, arms outspread, ready for Zoe to leap up in joy. She gazed up at me myopically, sniffed my feet and trotted right past, to greet my husband with middling enthusiasm, instead. I guess that sealed the deal: Zoe did not ‘belong’ to me. Though neither did she belong to him, it turned out.
When Mike moved back to Kentucky a couple of months ago, he was not able to keep Zoe at his brother’s house where he was staying. So his sister Kim offered to take her until Mike could find a place of his own. She had a beagle-mix who was hungering for a companion and Jackson and Zoe soon became inseparable. And whenever Mike would come by for a visit, sure enough, it was Kim who held her attention. Mike had become just another humanoid temporarily inhabiting a peripheral space. Zoe always knew who buttered her bread. You could say she was an eminently practical beast. Or, perhaps, just a little bit more enlightened than most of us creatures.
I’ve been immersing myself in studies of Buddhist philosophy again, this time approaching it from a novel angle through a MOOC on Buddhism & Evolutionary Psychology. Turns out these two disciplines have a host of similarities in explaining the mechanisms which form our sense of self, including the notions of attraction and preferences that usually predicate feelings of love and the way that our neurobiology is set up to negate the reality of impermanence.
Although it is enormously gratifying to our ego (our sense of self) to have a dog slavishly adore us, is it really the best strategy for the dog? Or us? Of course, we pride ourselves in the self-aggrandizing notion that their doggy brains (and hearts?) have overcome thousands of years of evolution to devote themselves single-mindedly to one human being out of billions, but when the consequences of that sort of devotion are an unremitting anguish and perhaps starving itself to death, one becomes a little mortified at the exacting toll our own sense of self-importance sometimes expects. (We tend to do the same thing with our romantic partners and BFF’s too, but at least they have the capacity to find food and shelter on their own.)
One of the ever-present catch-22s of Peace Corps service in this day and age is the ubiquitous of home and everyone else’s events and activities plastered all over social media. It can be very debilitating for some of us to witness life going on blithely in our absence, like a GOT character being killed off in the middle of the third season. No one much cares. Life goes on. You really weren’t that crucial to the plot after all.
Zoe’s graceful detachment always brought to my mind that Stephen Stills song Love the one you’re with. Don’t sit crying over good times you’ve had. Face forward and be here now. Make more good. It was actually a very freeing experience for me to learn that Zoe was not moping around missing me. On some basic level, I felt released to move on. I appreciated her companionship while we were together and I felt it was reciprocated. But, as I have learned only too well in my two years away from home, it is not healthy to predicate one’s happiness on the presence or proximity of something external. You take nothing with you. So look around you and find the good times where you’re at.
I know you’re loving the one you’re with Zoe. Good for you girl. Run in peace….
This morning I viewed a video on Facebook that gave me pause, causing me to appreciate the interconnectedness of my world and the multi-layered, radiating webs of relations we all weave while plodding through our daily lives. Posted by one of my sister’s best friends, it was an acoustic rendition of “Happy Birthday” plucked out on a guitar by a former band mate of one of my dearest high school pals, dedicated to a 50+ man with whom I attended Catholic school some 45 years ago. What makes these connections so mind-bending is that my sister has been dead for almost 29 years; her friend was, for a brief spate of time after my sister’s passing, my sister-in-law; I haven’t seen my high school friend (in person – I’m not counting Skype) in over 15 years nor the man from Catholic school in 25 and they met and became friends independently, years after I attended school with the latter. The band mate and my former sister-in-law lived together back in the 80’s after being introduced by my high school friend. Oh, the miracle of Facebook, that I can continue to witness the progression of all these relationships wherein I once played a role from minor plot development to headlining.
I bother to record this here because of what it brings to bear on my experience of life in Moldova as I creep towards the conclusion (19 weeks and 2 days until it could end – but more on that in a sec) of my Peace Corps service term. It is only now that the threads of disparate relationships are beginning to intertwine, forming stronger links to exciting projects and leading me in the direction of new prospects for actually employing the skills and experience I gathered in twenty years of people management and human resources back in the States. It feels like it has taken so long to become grounded and integrated here, but now that I am I can barely keep pace with the flow of opportunities coming my way.
I remember so clearly, back in training, instructors and second-year PCVs constantly reinforcing how important it would be to successful service to just get out and meet people, make connections, follow-up on introductions, be persistent and pesky and endlessly curious. What Peace Corps does, really, is put you at the starting gate in a particular place in the developing world after giving you a pep talk that lasts ten weeks, then they open the gate, wave you on and turn back to prepare for the next person stepping up to the plate.
In many ways, you truly do have the opportunity, challenge, and risk of creating your own service experience. Some people (actually only a relative few) hit the ground running, blessed with dynamic, English-speaking counterparts and skill sets that match the needs of their communities. Others find their way more hesitantly, having to negotiate language and cultural barriers, misdirected goals, inflated expectations or complete lack of interest. Some of them begin agitating for change, seeking a different partner, or a site move; a limited few ET. Others retreat into themselves, running daily marathons, baking pies and cookies, blowing through Candy Crush and Pet Farm Sagas, and/or consuming all available episodes of House of Cards, Game of Thrones, Downton Abbey and Breaking Bad after reading every award-winning book of the past decade. (I may have trod that particular path myself for more months than I will care to admit….except, of course, for the marathon part.)
But, finally, you meet some people. Or someone you’ve known since arrival introduces you to someone they just met. Or a new group of volunteers arrives a year after you and stirs the pot, forging new relationships that ultimately connect you. I have recently begun working with an amazing young woman who, through two degrees of separation, ended up being introduced to me after connecting with my husband on a volunteer software development project. After 19 months of feeling like all I do in Moldova is teach English, I am beginning to formulate connections that lead to ideas that infuse energy into projects that are infinitely more challenging and interesting than any I would have the opportunity to implement in the States.
Which is the main reason why I will not be leaving, after all, in 19 weeks and 2 days on July 8, the date I drew in the Close of Service lottery held three weekends ago. Ironically, it’s the only lottery I’ve yet ‘won’ in my life; July 8th is the very first day that anyone from the M27 group can leave Moldova. It will be tough, waving goodbye to so many people who have met so much to me for 27 months. But I already have a plan for my final year. It involves significantly more writing, so – hopefully – I will be present here again with more frequency, and a more substantial amount of work devoted to exciting projects that are only just now developing.
It is also involves opening myself up to new people and more varied, far-flung connections. During the protracted process of staging and Pre-Service training Peace Corps Volunteers tend to bond closely with the members of their incoming group, perhaps even more closely with the 10-20 PCVs in their same program. I have formed friendships here that I know will last for the rest of my life. These friendships have sustained and nurtured me through some difficult periods; I have laughed and cried, celebrated and whined, shared meals, beds, and crowded rutieras with these folks. I am lucky to have served with them and they represent a significant portion of what has been good and meaningful in my service thus far. They have been my safety net and, unfortunately in some respects, my cocoon.
Again, my Peace Corps experience is presenting me with another meta-lesson (change leads to insight far more often than insight leads to change.) Even the biggest changes – like ditching one’s routine existence to travel halfway across the world to volunteer in a country one never even knew existed – can be quickly subsumed by the fortifications one immediately, seemingly unconsciously, begins erecting again to shield oneself from further change. I have (re)created a nice life for myself here, complete with English-speaking friends, lots of books, meetings in restaurants, and weekend spa dates.
Now I am preparing myself for a different experience, one filled to a much greater extent with Moldovans. Even as I write this, I am breaking every hour or so to watch another segment of a YouTube video on Moldova. And as I was watching, I suddenly realized that large portions of it were in Romanian, which I was following without a hitch. I feel like I have finally crossed that barrier that separated me from so much that went on around me, everyday. I understand the language, I get the nuances of culture, and I interact with folks on a daily basis who are happy and forward-thinking and excited to have me in their lives. I barter for ingredients in the local piața to prepare traditional dishes like zeamă and borsch that I have come to crave. (And I know where to find cilantro and curry in Chișinau when I must have Mexican or Indian some days.) And I continue to appreciate the convenience of public transportation and not having to pay attention to the road. Despite living on a stipend that is a meager percentage of the salary I made at home, I feel increasingly richer and more secure every day. The web I am weaving is becoming denser, more intricate, and speckled with sparkling multi-cultured circumstances all the time.
I received an email from Peace Corps today. It kindly reminded me that, since there is but a scant six months separating me and my scheduled Close of Service (COS) date, the US Government will no longer be reimbursing me for any tutoring expenses I should choose to incur from this point on. (The subtext being, of course: if you haven’t learned the language sufficiently by now we’re no longer subsidizing your lame efforts, loser.) Now, I haven’t engaged a language tutor for some 9 or 10 months, not because I couldn’t have benefited from the tutelage but mostly because I was too lazy to search for a new one after I moved from my first site. And now, seemingly, it’s too late. I’m stuck with the primary grammar and intermediate vocabulary that I have cobbled together from 3 months of intense initial instruction followed up by 16 months of just living – using public transportation, making purchases, attending social gatherings, stepping on people’s feet and elbowing around them, trying to make friends and chase off hooligans, inquire as to the origin of the food I’m about to eat, and/or find my way back to familiar ground when I have inadvertently failed to follow rapidly communicated directions correctly.
And this is okay, I guess. But it sparks the slow embers of a flaring realization: I am sliding inexorably towards an exit sign, leading to a vast, uncharted territory that I have not adequately planned, nor properly dressed for. I am woefully unprepared for an appointment with my future. Egads.
So, this is that time in most PCV’s service when our focus is suddenly jerked up – from our prospects, our projects, our parties, our partners, our preoccupation with all things toilet. We begin blinking our microscope eyes, searching for the plumb line of the horizon, flexing shoulders and toes, stretching, slowly, back into still life silhouettes, anticipating movement ahead. Change is coming, certainly not tomorrow, but sooner than next year. The train is still small, on its belly in the distance, smoke billowing faintly against a vague tree line; but the track is beginning to quiver, warning of its approach.
First, the days drag. They smother and weigh. They mimic molasses and the last sticky drops of honey at the bottom of the jar. Then, they stretch and yawn, only to slump into stagnant heaps of furry formlessness for another gray sock of time. It takes at least a year for them to muster strength, gain courage and gather some momentum, find an outline and draw a trajectory, to finally pop into a periodic semblance of productivity and purpose. And so you have this idyllic six or seven, or even just four or five, months of actual, clear, and (hopefully) meaningful service before the powers that be jet you a reminder you that it will all be over sooner than you can fully plumb the depressing acknowledgement that you will never know Romanian better than you do now. Party’s over folks. Time to begin looking for your wallet and keys
So our group’s COS date selection is scheduled for February 2. I remember reading about this event when it happened for the M26’s last year. Their blogs and Facebook pages were filled with it – how surprised they were, how fast it went, how unprepared they felt for leaving. (Remember, this was when the molasses was still making its achingly slow passage across my calendar…..) And now here I am, standing in the same corridor, facing the same blank doorway. Oh my, how little we take away. (What is the use of all this incessant sharing anyway? It has not an iota of impact on our individual decision making or planning processes.)
The plan is to meet, throw our desired dates into a hat, and hold our collective breath while the Country Director draws our fate, setting into stone the chronology of our individual departures – two or three days difference meaning the world to some.
Me? I don’t really care. I may, in fact, not be leaving this summer after all…
In my previous post I mentioned a quote. “If you don’t know where you are going, then any road will take you there.”
I’ve been turning this over for days in my head. At first, I read it as an admonishment against those who didn’t plan, a chastisement for blowing in the wind, having no direction or goal, no “personal vision” that guided their journey. But as this line of thinking simmered, I seasoned it with other spice blends of timeless wisdom stored in the keepsake box of memory: be here now; life is what happens when you’re busy making plans; change leads to insight far more often than insight leads to change; live the life you’re proud of or find the strength to start over again; make spontaneity a habit; life never stops but continues until it ends; become a connoisseur of your own mistakes; own yourself; it feels good to be lost in the right direction;…my mental stewing gained complexity, condensed and thickened… the aromas deepened.
During my time here, I have begun following a certain type of blogger – people who have made travel and ex-pat living a lifestyle. They range in age from late 20’s to early 60’s; there are couples and single women. There are people who have flexible jobs that allow them to work online and those that return stateside every 2-3 years to earn enough money to hit the road again. Some of them could be deemed professionals, others are vagabond gypsies. (One is a professional vagabond!) They have various strategies for maintaining health and well-being, but the universal attribute they all seem to share is being ecstatically, blissfully, enchantingly happy. They can’t get enough of their life. I love to immerse myself in their experiences, to catch a whiff of the winds blowing them, to feel the world expand and embrace them, carry them along, going nowhere and everywhere.
I have spent the past couple of decades with a vague idea of a destination in my head. At some nebulous point I would reach a time when I would no longer be straight-jacketed by a job and then wonderful things would begin to happen: I would indulge my desire to write and travel and learn a new language and volunteer for a worthy cause. I would eat better and meditate regularly. I would pare down my wardrobe and toss all my high-heeled shoes. I would read a whole lot more.
But I had no idea how to get myself there other than stashing money in a retirement account and paying the mortgage every month. Surely those activities would land me in the desired place, right? It was during my late 40’s that I began to suspect that I was hoodwinking myself, that I had set my feet down a path in my 20’s that petered out on some dim horizon across a vast and arid desert. Life was happening to me while I was scrabbling towards its end.
Joining the Peace Corps was, in part, an acknowledgement that I did not know, nor did I really care, where I was headed anymore. I was tired of pretending that my daily activities were all coins placed in a piggy bank that I could break into someday to buy my reward. When I lost the job, the safety net, the leash that kept me to the path, I fell. Not just down to the ground, but through the ground; I was floating in undefined space. There was not a road anymore, no signs pointing in any direction. I was a ship unmoored, drifting from the harbor. With nowhere to go, I could go anywhere. Let the tide take me.
I appreciate being exactly this age, in my early 50’s, as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Unlike those who joined after college, I am not using this experience to pad my resume, to gain legitimacy, to globally network or bolster my LinkedIn profile. I am no longer hearing the thrum of a body clock ticking that those in their 30’s can’t shut out. And yet, unlike (perhaps) those in their 70’s and 80’s, I still feel like I have a substantial chunk of time left to skip along to nowhere or anywhere or wherever this road I’m on might lead. It feels good to not be planning on the future, to be fully present in what’s happening right here and now.
My past lifestyle rarely gave me the opportunity to make big changes. I stayed in the same job, lived in the same neighborhood, patronized the same stores and restaurants, drove the same streets and freeways, and walked the same pathways with my dogs, for years and years and years. And while this conferred an opportunity to nurture lifelong friendships, raise my daughter well, put a little money away, and grow my professional skills, it also deprived me of challenges and the courage to face them. I began to harbor little yapping dogs of fear in my skull: “You’ll never have enough money to quit working,” “You’ll probably get cancer and die from all those year of smoking,” “By the time you retire, you’ll be too old and feeble to enjoy it,” yadda, yadda, yadda. And while I certainly don’t knock those people who find fulfillment and reward and purpose on that particular path, it just wasn’t doing it for me anymore. It hadn’t for a long, long time.
The long and short of it is that if my request for an extension is granted I am probably going to be spending another year in Moldova. Right now I am not ready to leave this road going nowhere. But the biggest surprise of all? I am indulging my desire to write and travel and learn a new language and volunteer for a worthy cause. I am eating better and meditating regularly. I have pared down my wardrobe and tossed all my high-heeled shoes. And I am reading a whole lot more.
And after that? Perhaps next I will join those ranks of bloggers with ecstatic souls, whose feet are comfortable trodding any path, with or without signposts, or pavement, or destinations or direction.
There is so much left of life to live before it ends.
It is true that I went back and forth with myself about taking it with me: I packed it once, thought better of it, removed it from the suitcase, yet, as I was draping it back over the hangar, became bewitched again with the image of its soft black folds whirling about me in the winds whipping off the waves on the Isle of Skye. It was a fanciful accessory, a black cotton drape styled midway between cape and shawl, seemingly made by a costumer for a lass of the Scottish highlands. And, despite having left lass in the rearview mirror a couple of decades hence, I just couldn’t resist the notion of donning it on this quintessential stage. Perhaps it did carry a Iittle of the magic I had imbued it with over the years. A good luck charm for travel. Pulling it from the hangar, I bundled it up carefully and placed it in the front zippered pocket, readily accessible for the Kodak moment when it arrived.
I had first seen it on my sister almost 30 years ago and immediately coveted it. It was the height of my Fleetwood Mac phase, the mid-80’s, a time when it was surprisingly difficult to find the vintage, theatrical items that are a dime-a-dozen through Urban Outfitters, Buffalo Exchange, and hundreds of other outlets these days. It actually shocked me that she didn’t offer it to me – her of the easy acquiescence, the pliable Beth to my fiery Jo, the good one that always shared and never complained; nursing the arm I’d accidently broken, when she was eight and I twelve, into the predawn hours before her stifled whimpering finally alerted our mom. My little sister adored me, completely and utterly, in that unique, submissive fashion that a less studied character holds for one more flamboyant and artful.
Still life from a family photo album: me, front and center, encircled by a halo of pink tutu, hair coiffed in stiffly sprayed curls, eyes rimmed with turquoise, toe pointed in front of me, back arched, arms bowed at my sides; her, standing in the background, a little to my right, pudgy hands folded at her belly button, tights sagging, leotard bunched at her waist, mouth slightly agape, eyes gazing up at me, rapturous, as if Glinda had just materialized in front of her. An accidental, naked portrait of how it always was between us.
I had recently returned, reluctantly, to the dull harbor of my old bedroom at our parent’s house. Lorraine had just fledged, leaving the boyfriend she had lived with since high school to share a freshly outfitted apartment with a co-worker. There was a newly minted assurance coating her, a sheen of silvery confidence that signaled a subtle shift in our relationship. While my post-adolescence wanderings may have increased the hip-cred I brandished to cover my wounds, she seemed to have glided over my years of awkward angst to alight, perhaps tentatively, in a place of adulthood. She made me a little nervous.
But when she pulled out the black shawl one afternoon as we headed out to lunch, I immediately recovered my big sister voice.
“Oh wow, sissy – that is beautiful! Where did you get it? You have to give it to me!”
Closing my eyes I can still picture the careful compression of her puffy lips, the firm little shake of her head.
“Nope. It’s mine.” Lilt at the end. Smiling, but implacable.
She wore it everywhere we went during those long ago months: a concert; the fair; furniture shopping for her new place. And I continued to crave ownership, scooping it up and swirling it about my shoulders whenever I found it tossed on her couch, stomping about her living room like Stevie in her boots, belting out “Rhiannon” while flourishing an invisible tambourine. She would laugh and agree that it fit me. But she never ceded.
So perhaps it was a matter of course that I had my way elsewhere, appropriating the swarthy Armenian jeweler she brought me to meet one sunny afternoon in March. Perched on a Laguna bluff, his little shop part workspace, part bohemian haven, redolent of incense, curtained by vines and palm fronds. Andreas Vollenwieder rolled in buoyant waves over us as we sipped chardonnay from wrought iron chairs on his doorstep and watched the sun glint off the Pacific. Her flirting was so self-effacing and contained that it aggravated my chronic promiscuity. I was sleeping with him within a week.
Next, I impulsively acquired the same model car she had spent hours and hours making up her mind to buy, comparing color and interior options, gas mileage, performance ratings, and safety scores. She was days away from purchase when I drove up to her place in a brand new, blue, 5-speed Mitsubishi Cordia.
“You wanted white. I thought we could be twins.”
I think I actually made her mad with that one. But she never said a word. And within two weeks she had a Toyota Corolla fastback: smaller, sleeker, cuter.
It was the car she died in, it’s aroma of new carpet and leather seats not quite dissipated, a bare month later.
What does one do with dead people’s things? How much of the person do they hold within, captured moments and memories, static icons of fluid emotions, precious objects with no other intrinsic value than of once having been curated by someone disappeared?
Within hours of learning of my sister’s accident, I find myself in her bedroom, spinning in slow circles, a lighthouse spotlight trying to pierce the syrupy morning sunlight replete with bobbing dust motes, tiny faeries trying to break free of amber. My glance falls upon the cast off bathrobe crumpled on the bed; the brush full of hair lying on the windowsill; the smudged mirror reflecting tubes and compacts of make-up, bottles unscrewed, on the vanity; the open closet spilling forth clothing askew on its hangars. Bathrobe, brush, mirror, closet, bathrobe, brush, mirror, closet. The fairy dust shimmers as the sun rises higher. The smell of her conditioner lingers in the close air.
What to do with all of this? How sudden is the moment when things change into useless, superfluous litter, floating in space. Do I take that brush tangled with her last hair? The robe, still damp from last night’s shower? Or the lipstick she always wore, surely smeared with the tiny slivers of skin always flaking from her lips? I can’t seem to grasp it, the enormous, echoing void left by a life abruptly vacated, the cavernous, stretching emptiness of it, the detritus scattered on its shore.
It is only as I turn to go that my eyes brush across the tail of black fabric snaking out from amidst the sandals, sneakers, and high heels jumbled atop each other on the floor of the closet. I am in the doorway before it penetrates and I spin around.
Mine now. Sissy, it’s mine.
The years since her passing kaleidoscope: I’m a young, single mother; a university student; a counselor; an executive; a wife; a homeowner. My bank account expands along with my waistline. The Armenian jeweler moves to Hawaii and I never hear from him again. I sell the Cordia to buy the ’64 Porsche of my first husband’s dreams. Lace skirts and crystal beads give way to sensible pumps and blazers. The detritus of my own life recedes in my wake, falling beyond the horizon.
But the shawl stays, a lasting imprint, the cocoon I wrap around me during cold months of grieving, the totem of resilience and serenity which I doggedly tote through all my incarnations. Mine, but still hers, it takes me ten years to wash it, convinced as I am that her DNA is still entwined amongst the threads.
My daughter, too, comes to covet it. I let her wear it whenever; it fits her eclectic Echo Park, retro-Beat chic. But I am firm when I find it amongst the clothing she has piled in the back of her truck, preparing to move to Tahoe.
“Really, mom? It’s not like you can carry it off anymore.”
“It’s Lorraine’s, sweetie. It’s all I have left.”
She flings me the withering look.
“So I guess I’ll just wait for you to die, huh?”
It catches me. When will – if ever – I let it go? When will it would it be okay to let it slip from my grasp, to allow the last tangible piece of her to float away from me in space, to no longer have the least physical connection embody her? Why not let the one have it who will most likely be packing up my abandoned things someday? A thought – not enormous – but elusive, slippery, fraught with tingles of pain like little electric shocks sparking beneath my skin.
No. Not yet.
I found out that just days before her death Lorraine had driven to my grandmother’s house in Montrose to type up her application for American Airlines. (Yes, in 1985 we typed things.) She never mentioned it to me, perhaps because she knew the derision I would express for such a safe, contained version of wanderlust. Always methodical and practical, perhaps she had her own thoughts about my wanton attitude toward life at that time. Perhaps she had drawn her own conclusion, never articulated, about the big sister who jumped without quite attaining flight. About the web of scars filmed over by the gauzy persona of a world-weary, hippie-gypsy returned, hiding the tale between her legs.
I will never how it would have been between us, after the glitter faded. I know that she loved me. And I her. But women are not so little girls; who knows what it would have been like, each with her own stage, a separate spotlight, different audiences to attend to? In my imagination, at times, she eclipses me, meeting a middle-eastern businessman, moving to Turkey, having a passel of honey-bronze children, getting a PhD.
Me, I am more practical now. There are less and less occasions when a decades-old black shawl seems appropriate. In part, joining the Peace Corps was a little homage to her: a safe, contained way to indulge wanderlust. Yet, during the process of selling and giving away the bulk of my possessions before leaving, I hold the black shawl in my hands, weighing its significance, wondering if now is finally the right time to let go. And I recall the way the tangled gold of her hair spilled forth from the folds of the attached scarf when she wound it about her head. The way it enveloped her, hanging longer and looser about her smaller frame. The afternoons in her living room, draping it about myself seductively, twirling to the music with contrived abandon, hoping to win the prize.
I hold it up to my nose. Not a trace of her smell remains. I am not sure I even remember what she smelled like. With a fleeting sense of panic, I toss it in the “keep” pileand bring it with me to Moldova.
I am wearing it in the picture of me on the boat from the mainland crossing over to the Isle of Skye, the land of the faeries. I am smiling, happy to be going to a place on my bucket list. I am 51 years old; more lies behind me than in front of me these days. I can discern the dim outline of a horizon out there ahead.
So the emotions are mixed, confused, when I discover it missing as I am packing the next day to depart. Long, slow breaths as the realization floods in. It is gone, disappeared, leaving a black hole within my suitcase. Had I tossed it on the bed in the hostel, where some transient backpacker espied it, liberating it for it new adventure? Or placed it on the back of the chair at the bar, ready for the next itinerant guest to don before she boarded the cross-country train to distant realms? Or perhaps it went home with the server, to reside on the Isle of Skye for a handful of decades until her daughter packs it in a box or hangs it in up in her own closet someday? Who knows? It happened. It is gone from my life, the last trace of her, without me having to decide, choose, finally let go.
I tell myself she would be proud of me, that our love would have blossomed and flourished through the years, that we would have grown to stand next to each other, holding hands, shoulders touching, heads tilted slightly towards each other. In my mind’s eye, we share center stage and the spotlight cloaks us both in warm brilliance. Neither one of us is wearing the cape. A Kodak moment, a studied, slightly fuzzy portrait of the people we became.
And a clenched hand releases, letting her drift, the last anchor now lifted, finally free to roam the space of this world.
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.”
On Wednesday, June 5, at 12:45pm, a group of 51 new Peace Corp Trainees landed at Chișinău airport to a great deal of noise and fanfare on the part of the M27s who were perched on the roof to greet them. I was surprised to see and feel the giddy anticipation, which quickly morphed into unbridled emotion (tears and all), this particular event evoked within us now 1-year-old volunteers. It was an electric tingling of excitement mingled with sentimental hope for the newcomers, sprinkled with a sense of awe, self-confidence and pride at how distant that moment seems last June when we landed on the exact same tarmac, google-eyed and weary. Life feels so different now. So normal. Routine. We have made it. And most of them will, too.
I stood outside the the terminal exit along with the other mentors and watched as each one of them emerged, wheeling a cart with all their baggage for their next 27 months, and witnessed the play of emotions dance across their tired faces. I experienced it all again – the fear, the exhaustion, the confusion, the gut-churning anxiety that accompanied my first glimpse of my new home. Accompanying them on the bus back to Chișinău, I noted how some of them couldn’t stop asking questions while others seemed steeped in silence, deep in a world of their own. Watching them interact with Peace Corps staff and other mentors at hub site during a quick pizza lunch, I witnessed some of them flit about the room like newly hatched butterflies, while others looked as if they’d like to crawl back into a cocoon. And I knew all of these observations were no indication of how they would develop as volunteers. You just never can tell….
The following Friday, June 7th, was our actual anniversary date and our entire Stauceni class – minus Jan and Leslie, who ET’d (Early Termination) back in October, and Quinn, who was conducting a summer camp – gathered at Robyn’s house in a village near the Romanian border to celebrate. I took a train with Georgie directly from my village to Robyn’s raion center – a 10 minute bus ride from her village – for 9 lei. (That’s less than 75 cents American, folks.) It was fantastic. We got to sit on benches at a graceful distance from our fellow riders, no armpits in our noses and with an actual open window blowing fresh air on our faces (which helped dispel some of the noxious fumes from the 6 boxes of live chickens in the back of the compartment.)
Robyn is one of the most thoroughly integrated volunteers I know. She lives in a small village where she never hears English, which has brought her Romanian to beautifully articulated fluency. She is surrounded by Moldovan neighbors, friends and work partners – there is not an American to be found within at least 50-60 kilometers. And this is just fine with her. She has a large garden, fruit and nut trees, a cat, and a four room house complete with modern bathroom all to herself. The view from her front porch is one of the most glorious I’ve come across in Moldova. This is a dream come true for her – the exact kind of experience she wanted from her Peace Corps service. She is pretty sure that she will be extending for a third year.
And, as I have said over and over again in this blog, everyone’s Peace Corps experience in unique. Last summer there were four very smart, accomplished, and vibrant M26s who ET’d, much to our newbie perplexity. We were just entering and they were bowing out – early – even though they all seemed happy and satisfied with the work they had accomplished during the previous year.
And now I believe I better understand why.
Patty, my “PC daughter” (she calls me “mama”) decided some time ago that she had reached the natural termination of her Peace Corps service. Though it did not happen to coincide with her scheduled COS (Close of Service) date, she felt that she had done everything she had set forth to do in joining the Peace Corps and the time had come for her to move on. So our one year anniversary celebration doubled as poignant farewell to a much beloved member of our little family.
Patty stayed with me for her last four days in country and we spent a number of hours together reflecting on Peace Corps, its ups and downs, rewards and challenge, and, especially, the clarity it (sometimes unwelcomingly) forces upon you in relation to your own character and vulnerabilities. As badly as a part of me wanted to equate my experience to hers, to remind her of the depression and hopelessness I had felt just a few short months before, of how many times I had contemplated ET’ing and how glad I was now that I hadn’t, I stopped myself. I am not Patty’s mother. We are Peace Corps Volunteers, together but different, each walking a very personal path.
For me, her recent departure has become an interesting exercise in self-awareness, revealing more layers of my former personae – the one that had accreted over 27 years of motherhood, flavored by elements of paternal influence that generate my propensity to take control –which I am still shedding here in Moldova. Patty is just 5 weeks younger than Rhiannon, my only child. They share many similarities – sparkling intelligence, a snarky wittiness, big dreams, and a passion for travel coupled with a firm desire not to spend their youth caged in a cubicled-world – that drive them both to keep seeking that proverbial place of contentment, somewhere over the rainbow, of which they have yet to catch a glimpse.
One of the most liberating aspects of my Peace Corps journey has been the opportunity to form peer-relationships with people of my daughter’s generation, to be treated as just another friend, a fellow traveler on this journey, equal in most every way that counts here after all the roles and titles and social contexts of America have been left behind. Patty is good at halting me in my tracks when I stray off into mother role – giving too much advice or reminding her not to forget her purse or nagging her to go to the doctor, for example. Smart-ass comebacks that might sting coming from Rhiannon I receive like a refreshing splash of water to the face from her. Perhaps not even realizing it, she has held a mirror up to me, allowing me to see with clarity many of the reflexive aspects of my personality that I know annoy my daughter to no end. (Rhiannon, if you ever get to meet Patty, know that you owe her a soul debt. I think I can be a better mother to an adult daughter because of her.)
And so the cycle spins, cleansing me of much of the gray water that I toted along from America and that threatened to engulf me through those long, empty winter months. I have come full circle, weathering the spectrum of seasons, to arrive – finally – in a mental space where I could both greet the new trainees with confidence and joy and then, days later, accompany one of my very best friends on a 4am final journey to the airport and hold back tears as I said goodbye, knowing that the last American face she saw in Moldovan should be one of confidence and joy, also.
I’ll miss you Patty. But I believe in the choice you’ve made for yourself.
We wave hello and then goodbye and hold tightly to each others’ hands along the way.