Photographic Evidence

Photographic Evidence

Assignment 3 in Personal Essay and Memoir course

FIRST: Choose a selfie from your phone. Examining the selfie, describe the following elements, in 400-600 words or so:

  • the specific location in which the photo was taken, and why
  • your attire in the photo, and why
  • one detail in the photo that stands out as unique or remarkable (and why you find it so)
  • at least one element about the environment that could not be deduced from evidence in the photo, for example, smells, sounds, activity in the next room, etc.
  • your mood at the time the photo was taken, and why
  • the person who was physically closest to you in the photograph (Keep in mind this may not necessarily be someone visible in the photograph.)

Writing from the level of the frame (again, you can think of this as the level of the voiceover or quasi-omniscient narrator), describe your mood, or what was likely the case, based on past habits and routine behaviors. Think about how you move between the details you do remember and those you don’t.

Then, writing from the level of the story, as if the events captured by the photo are unfolding in real time, repeat the exercise using a photograph of you taken by someone else. This photo should be completely unrelated to the selfie except, of course, that you are the subject of each.

Pioneertown

Selfie: Susan and I have come to Pioneertown, located in the high desert just out of Joshua Tree State Park, to visit her as-yet undeveloped property.  While she walks the boundaries checking for traces of flooding patterns, digging out thorny bushes and other unwanted interlopers, I sit in a folding metal chair she’s brought to accommodate me.  After several minutes tracing her dwindling figure among the lightening-amputated Joshua trees and fire-seared cacti with my phone camera, I accidentally flip it back on me.  I’m not a big one for selfies as the portraits I capture inevitably appear to be of no one I recognize.  But this time is different. This time it is ME looking at back at me, the me of decades ago – aged, for sure, but still within the general outlines of the person I recognize as my Self.

I am wearing my beloved J. Peterman hat that appears to be cowboy grade leather but is actually a cotton acrylic blend that fits my head so well it looks like it grew from it.  I can feel the gentle, sage-scented breeze that lifts my longish blonde hair, providing a cooling counterpoint to the desert sun.  Several rounds of braided black leather from which a tarnished charm and a polished bit of amber hang encircle my neck; beyond the shoulders and upper neckline of my black tee shirt, not much more of me is visible.  (This is how, along with the pinpoint focus of my gaze, I can tell it is a selfie and not a photo Susan took of me, which is how she remembers it – oh the vagaries of memory!)

Perhaps it just evidences the amount of weight I’ve lost in the last year that my real face has emerged from the black hole it dropped into during my forties.  For years, the puffy, mildly confused person staring back at me from photos appeared lost within the frame, unclear how she arrived in the tableau, unsure of the way out.  Now, in this photo, I am slightly amused, relieved to see my own eyes, a bit red from the sun and wind, staring back at me.

Or maybe the reappearance of my Self is indicative of the welcome exhilaration that an exodus from suburbia has provided – Susan just as enthused as me to put Orange County in the rear-view mirror in favor of open horizons and the bird-tatted silence of the desert. I am now counting years since I have left the United States; its intangible borders feel more and more intractable and stultifying these days.  Within the frame of the selfie, though, I am the emigrant who can see free again.

Halloween 2018

Photograph: I am sitting aslant on John and Emily’s living room couch, the only person seated in a nighttime babel of drink-holding, costume-clad, party-voiced revelers.  Fortunately, the anime-face mask I’m wearing hides the misery and exhaustion I’m feeling.  Emily, who has yet to discern my marked lack of enthusiasm for the celebration, hands me another glass of alcohol (there is an untouched Moscow Mule in a plastic cup gathering beads of sweat on the end table beside me) and squeals “Hurry Mike – over here! Let’s get you guys’ picture!”   Mike obligingly drops down heavily beside me, causing me to fall against him.  Draping his arm around my shoulders, he beams at the camera, one bushy eyebrow raised. An irrational fury adds hiss to the roiling of my stomach: three days of continuous vomiting, vertigo, and diarrhea have left me humorless and hating everyone.  I landed in Cincinnati a mere four hours ago; we immediately got on the highway to make the two-hour drive to Lexington for this party.  I so hadn’t wanted to board that plane, worried about both the uncountable ailments that had persisted despite all my efforts to appease them and how I would manage them for six hours in a cramped airline seat.  But when you live 1600 miles from your spouse you don’t cancel conjugal visits lightly.

Now, husband beside me, I can’t even manage to hold his hand for the photo.  Instead, my left hand clutches my right, white knuckles glowing, in a silent plea to make it stop, return to normal, quiet the mounting dread I have that something is really wrong. My mask is askew; the eye holes are black and bottomless, no sign of myself peering out.

Three days from now I will wake up to neon-yellow tinted eyes, sallow skin and brown urine in the toilet bowl.  Five days from now I will be informed by my horrified primary care physician that my liver enzymes are the highest she’s ever seen and within a week I’ll be discussing liver transplants with my new gastroenterologist.  But the night of the photo, I have no information, only uncountable pain and misery, irritating people surrounding me, and a plastic mask to hide behind.

Trading down for uptime

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

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

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

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

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

We must become ignorant of all that we have been taught

And be instead bewildered.

Run from what is profitable and comfortable.

If you drink those liqueurs

You will spill the spring waters of your real life.

Forget safety.  Live where you fear to live.

Destroy your reputation, be notorious.

I have tried prudent planning for long enough.

From now on I live mad.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Foodies, Funk, and Fun

Lamb Shank

FOODIES

I love a good meal and tend to find myself in the company of those that do, too. Back in the States I was one of four women comprising “Table 41,” a monthly dining club that allowed me to sample high-end restaurants and top-tier chefs through the economy of paying only a quarter of the tab (unlike when my husband and I went out, say, and we had to foot the bill for both of us.) I have had the incredible luck of falling into another such group here in Chișinău and we have committed to visiting one of nicer, ethnic/cultural restaurants in the capital every weekend until my departure on September 2. Chișinău has changed just in the three years that I have been in Moldova, new restaurants seeming to pop up each month (including, just two weeks ago, Smokehouse, the first serving authentic American BBQ, opened by two of my good friends and fellow M27s, Matt Stahlman and David Smith.)

Nadia_tongue
Classic Nadejda pose – there’s a bit of the devil in there, too!

Nadejda, my counterpart at Novateca has been an angel to me in so many ways, not in the least for re-introducing me to Al and Uliana. I met them both briefly at an InterNations event, the monthly gathering of ex-pats in Chișinău, about a year and a half ago but only cemented our mutual admiration society upon running into them one night at Smokehouse when I was having dinner with Nadejda. Turns out Uliana and her have been friends for a decade (small world, truly, Moldova) and Al tutors Nadejda’s daughter in conversational English. Through the course of our exclamations over the exquisite experience of spice (something hard to come by in Moldovan dishes) we discovered ourselves all to be foodies and immediately decided to form a dinner club. table coverThat’s how we found ourselves last weekend at Gok-Oguz, a Gaugazian place that has the ambiance of a country villa and the food to match. For those of you unfamiliar with the territory of Gaugaz, know that it is a “national-territorial autonomous unit” within Moldova populated by the descendants of Turks who migrated into the Balkans during the 13th century. So their food is a surprisingly delightful mix of Eastern Europe and Middle Eastern cuisine, with many dishes some permutation of lamb, rice, cabbage, onions, and other pickled vegetables.

entranceexterior_1exterior_2Gagauz spread_2the_group_1Uliana_fan_Heidi

That’s Uliana on the left, Heidi, an M29 PCV in the middle, and Al on the right.  Heidi and I met, auspiciously, through my blog. She was living in NYC working at a boutique M&A firm, riding in the backs of town cars and traveling to Milan for work, when she messaged me, wanting some real time advice on Peace Corps service. And now here we are, two years hence, with her and I at the same table, and she scheduled to move into my old apartment and commence work on a marketing campaign for Neoumanist service tourism project this September. (Truly, it’s a small world after all!)

FUNK

The next day, Sunday, Heidi and I explored The Yard Sale, a  flea-market-cum-food-truck experience that materializes monthly in a bohemian enclave hidden in the depths of a few twisting back alleyways in the middle of Chișinău. She and I had to keep shaking ourselves as it felt as if we had somehow been teleported to SoHo or WeHo – 90% of those in attendance could have been plucked from an American Apparel catalogue or blended into the crowd at Venice Beach. I don’t know where central casting found them, but they definitely weren’t the usual demographic shopping at Sun City or Malldova. Wildly colored hair, body piercings, elaborate tats and funky headgear all seemed de rigueur and for once my Vibram toe shoes didn’t feel out of place. I had an actual falafel, made from actual ground chickpeas (not a mix) that was de-lish and we sat and sipped sangria and people-watched, happily, for a couple of hours.

View_3 View_2 View_1 Swinging Swing Round_house

Hard to make out, but that’s a person inside the red hammock swinging out from the empty window frame in the middle right photo.  No safety net or helmet, folks, just family entertainment, Moldovan style!

FUN

Cat_coalition_2

And, heading out for a morning walk, just outside my front door, we find the cat coalition that lives beneath my building, swarming the walls and fences each time a person disturbs their rank.  There must be 30 or 40 of them, all ages, I swear.

During the morning walk, I pass by what I have dubbed the local haunted house. Since it doesn’t have a door, or windows, or much of a roof, I guess it’s really not much of a house, but sure looks creepy, right?

Round_corner_haunted_house

Tiny_kitchen

And, finally, my stab at living “tiny,” evidenced by the doll-sized kitchen in my AirBnb apartment.  I am enamored of the tiny house movement and find the smaller space quite navigable for preparing meals though perhaps not so sweet on storage….and I do miss having an oven.

Look for me here at least once a week through September 2 as I’m wrapping it up my time Moldova.  Life begins, again, anew.

And, still, I’ll be living mad…….

In Honor of Peace Corps Service

September 2, 2015, I become an RPCV
September 2, 2015, I become an RPCV

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…

Sunrise Center, my home since March 2013
Sunrise Center, my home since March 2013

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!

My Rasarit family
Some of my Neoumanist family

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.

***

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/neohumanist?fref=ts

Website: http://www.neohumanist.org/projects.php

Blog: https://neoumanisteng.wordpress.com/

Global Giving campaign: https://www.globalgiving.org/projects/a-new-roof-for-elderly-center/

The (Worldwide) Webs We Weave

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.

Spider web 2

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.

Bine ați venit Moldova!

Spider web 1

Vara #2: Turul Moldovei 2013!

Last Saturday, June 15th, Turul Moldovei participants showed up in Soroca (north) and Taraclia (south) to begin 150 mile treks across Moldova that will land them in the capital of Chișinău (just about dead center of the country) on Sunday, June 30th.  For me, this is the culmination of 9 months of planning fraught with all the usual suspects: headaches, fretting, fighting, second-guessing, over-preparation, under-preparation, wasted hours, jam-packed meetings, and long hours spent staring at a computer screen.

And every single moment was absolutely worth it.

***

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Sue, diplomatically fielding the 102nd call from PC administration…
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Tori, TM’s most accomplished Romanian speaker, negotiating with a Moldovan vendor.

What began as an off-hand remark made over a beer on a sweltering afternoon in the middle of PST morphed into a three-headed beast with a gaping maw that required seemingly endless permutations of tact, diplomacy, patience, willpower, and plain-old pig-headedness to tame.  Sue may (or may not) have tossed off the flippant observation that “Moldova is so small we could probably walk across it” and Yvette may (or may not) have seized on this bon mot as a brilliant kernel with dynamic potential and we may (or may not) have co-opted Tori into subsuming the Heath Education PCVs’ fuzzily conceived bike trip into our vision; all I know is this particular narrative has now become the stuff of PC Moldova lore.

(20 years from now they will be telling some version of this story as they pack up the banners and toss the old posters when closing this site down….I do know that Sue and Tori will have completely different memories – as they should – of what this project brought to their Peace Corps service, so I do not attempt to relate their viewpoints here. )

Attempting to plan an event or activity with Moldovans is a little like trying get a kindergartner to anticipate her high school graduation: sure it’s something that (theoretically) may occur at some point in the distant future but at this moment in time is so far beyond the horizon that it bears no serious consideration.  Really?  You want me to think about June when it’s only April?  You can’t be serious.

Former admin executive-cum-complusive organizer-cum control freak (some would say) that I am, this inability to engage in proper project-and time-management activities caused my brain to fritz and fry.  I was on permanent melt-down status from January through April until I finally came to terms with the reality that things would either work out or not regardless of how many hours I spent worrying about my inability to anticipate and direct outcomes.

It has been a great exercise in letting go, mostly because I had no choice.  The tighter I held on the greater the tension I created between me and my co-planners and the more I fantasized about plunging fiery paper clips into their eyes as we glared across the table at each other through every meeting that failed to elicit crossed-off agenda items to clear the slate for the next meeting.

Sue, modeling the official Walk Captain umbrella.
Sue, modeling the official Walk Captain umbrella.

Nothing was ever done to satisfaction.  Nothing was ever completed at all.  Walkers started the journey one day after we eliminated a village on the southern route, not sure where the walkers would go on day 12 of the trek.  The donated water was not delivered until five days after the Tour began.  We had to ship 175 one-and-a-half liter bottles by rutiera and trust that the driver would deliver it to a person standing by the side of the highway.  Events in some of the villages have still not been formulated. We’re not sure that there is a vehicle at every site to transport luggage, water, and equipment to the next site.  And you know what?  It will all be fine.

South Taraclia - wedding party
Turul joins the wedding party – de sigur!

Because I have fielded tens of calls and received a ton of emails and read ecstatic FB postings about the amazing experience that the walkers have had in just a short amount of time on the road.  Peopl e who had registered for one or two days are now signing up for as many more days as they can find open.  Others who had not registered at all are spontaneously showing up to the village sites by bus to join in the celebrations.

The walkers have been feted and applauded and put to back breaking labor.  They have slept in comfy beds and on the wet grass adjacent to the Nistru River.  They have had to buy and prepare their own meals and been wined and dined in a fancy restaurant, gratis.   In the space of 120 hours they have walked almost 50 miles and met at least a hundred new people.  They have not only shown a whole host of Moldovans what spreading peace and friendship means, they themselves have been the recipients of an abundance of curiosity, hospitality, and good will.South Taraclia - with kids

Four teenaged Moldovan students of a English English Education PCV are accompanying her on the entire southern route.  Apparently, they have been among our best ambassadors.  There are myriad pictures of them in their bright yellow Turul Moldovei t-shirts, playing with kids, dancing with other girls, shoveling dirt, picking up trash.  A particularly poignant photo was taken of one of them seated next to an older Moldovan gentleman, both of them resting on a curb, deep in animated conversation.  We liked it so much we posted it to the Turul webpage.  When she saw it, I heard that she started to cry.  She said that never in her life had she imagined she could undertake such a journey, have such an amazing experience; never in her life did she imagine her picture would be featured on a web page.  She said that she will remember this walk for the rest of her life and maybe nothing could ever make her this happy again.   (Of course, I freaking cried.)

South Taraclia - old manThe picture of a lifetime

***

This project is succeeding far beyond our wildest dreams.   After all the pain and frustration and headaches, the result has been a fantastic, life-altering (for some) experience, and the most perfect way to embody the ups and downs of the Peace Corps journey.

Poftim Moldova. Drum Bun!

*****************************************************************************************************************************To all of my blog followers, friends and family who donated to this project – a huge hug and a shower of love and appreciation.  I wish I could share with you what a unique story you have helped write, what a difference you have made to so many people.  You have helped to create a treasured experience that will live on in peoples’ spirits, uniting particular Moldovans and American through many years and distances and which – hopefully – will contribute to a new knowledge of what an amazing experience volunteering can be for both of our nations’ citizens. 

To follow the daily progress of Turul Moldovei 2013, visit our our official website.

Vara #1: Another spin in the cycle

Me and Romy, hustling for peace...
Me and Romy, hustling for peace at Chisinau International Airport

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.

All those excited faces waiting to debark the bus transporting them across the tarmac
All those excited faces waiting to debark the bus transporting them across the tarmac

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, with mushroom
Robyn, with mushroom

 

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The view from Robyn's porch The view from Robyn’s porch

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. 100_2738

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.