Elevation

I’ve been absent from this space for awhile, mostly because I’m acclimating to a new routine and living situation. Sitting high on a hill, overlooking the never-ending stream of automobiles sluicing down the 5 freeway, California sun lighting up floor-to-ceiling windows is a different experience than being nestled down in a tree-arbored apartment in southwest Ohio. The dominant color there is green; here I am steeped in golden brown and dusty blue.

SIlver_Lake_living_room

My daughter Rhiannon is coming up on 35 weeks of pregnancy with twin boys and I have been summoned in support, the first time in more than a decade that I can recall her making an unequivocal request for my help. Obviously, I am awash in emotion. This is one of those life passages so fraught with implication and meaning that one is placed in an altered state merely by their occurrence. Watching my only child soften into the contours of fecundity, I hover in suspended awareness. Time is passing; my role in my own life no longer assumes center stage. This is the future coalescing and supplanting, as it always has and will forever do.

***

Los Angeles is providing a fertile stage for this awareness; though I have lived in its proximity most of my life, I have not spent a great deal of time within its neighborhoods. My maternal grandmother lived just outside of Glendale for decades and I would spend one week a year throughout my youth with her, usually in the spring. As my daughter grew, I would drive up once a month or so from Orange County and Grandma and I would take her to Griffith Park or Descanso Gardens or the Galleria, the same places she used to take me. That was, in essence, what LA represented for me: discrete destinations, curated experiences, little containers of childhood. Now – and especially in contrast to the semi-rural context of Ohio and Moldova – LA has deepened into a complex tapestry, richly colorful, fantastically disordered, and pulsating with life. I finally begin to understand and appreciate the siren call of LA. Energy never dissipates here. There is no quiet. At 3am, the number of cars rushing through those asphalt arteries down below far exceeds those I would pass at 8am on the 275 into Cincinnati. They hypnotize me and calm me, each one a story, an intention, a full and varied life that shoots by at 75 miles per hour, anonymous and discrete,simultaneously acting out my inherent restlessness and holding it at bay.

When my daughter first moved here five years ago I bought her a book, Secret Stairs: A Walking Guide to the Historic Staircases of Los Angeles, that I thought might provide a different perspective on the city where no one, purportedly, walks. Little did I imagine at the time that it would become a trusty companion to my morning perambulations through the many hillside neighborhoods of eastern Los Angeles. Coming from the land of suburban housing tracts, planned communities, and gridded streets, I am delighted by the clapboard bungalows, Craftsman cottages, Neutra- and Wright-designed villas, bougainvillea-draped manors, and wooded cabins that hang off the slopes of precarious canyons fed by one-lane, buckled cement roadways that twist around and back on themselves in whimsical loops.

Climbing two or sometimes three (if I’m feeling really ambitious) staircases every morning is giving me a much more arduous but enjoyable workout than the elliptical machine at the Ohio gym. During a typical walk, I might pass by the house where Amy Semple lived, Anais Nin died, Thelma Todd was murdered, or Faulkner wrote his screenplays; circumnavigate an emptied drinking-water reservoir being reconstructed into a wetland habitat; conquer the staircases that defeated Laurel and Hardy in The Music Box or the Three Stooges in An Ache in Every Stake; or stroll through the wooded canyon where once the Pacific Electric Red Car trolley line ran. The staircases themselves are vestigial monuments to long-dead contractors – C.W. Shafer or M.W. McCombs – and city inspectors – W.E. Moyle or Rumble – who stamped their names into concrete almost a century ago. They are historical reminders of a time when LA was not a city of cars and freeways, but was, instead, well-served by trolleys, buses, streetcars and light-rail systems. As Secret Stairs tells it:

The staircases were clustered around steep hillside communities near these transit lines…[and were] so much a part of the landscape that developers in some areas built houses that had no other access to the outside world. These “walk-streets”… were set on hillsides without streets or garages. Everything going in or out had to employ the public staircase running, usually, across the front of the house.

Think of that! Houses without vehicle entry a scant handful of miles from downtown LA! And, by virtue of the strenuous effort needed to access them, I imagine, many of them appear not to have been altered or remodeled since they were built in the 20’s and 30’s – a unique and refreshing phenomenon in a city that reinvents itself almost every decade. There is one particular walk-street staircase of 182 steps in Rhiannon’s neighborhood affording the intrepid climber stunning vistas of Forest Lawn Memorial Park and the Silver Lake reservoir that I cannot imagine hauling a refrigerator up. The houses along this pedestrian alley are tiny, brightly painted, and overgrown with banana, palm, avocado, cedar, and ancient oak trees. I imagine their contents to be relatively spare and carefully curated, or else collected over decades and never changed. One would need to work hard to accumulate stuff in one of these homes: how bad do you really want that king-sized headboard, mahogany wardrobe, or JennAir range? Enough to haul it up 182 narrow, eroding concrete steps (or pay a ton of money to have someone else do it?)

The density and diversity of these neighborhoods enchants me, welcoming places where economic class and attendant privilege are not so cleanly demarcated. Perhaps one of these reasons why Angelenos remain so overwhelmingly liberal in their politics and lifestyles is that they are not able to isolate themselves in a gated bubble. So much of this city is irretrievably integrated, vagabonds setting up tarp tents in the gulches outside the Whole Foods Market, Guatemalan septuagenarians residing in crumbling adobes next to teenaged celebrities inhabiting world-renowned architectural wonders, bilingual preschools sporting late model Land Rovers parked next to rattletrap Datsuns (remember those) in their dirt lots. Los Angeles is a simmering stew of ethnic and cultural variety that fills me with appreciation, having been steeped in communities both foreign (Eastern Europe) and domestic (Orange County) that offered a limited range of predominantly pale hues. I see what the west coast – and LA, in particular – holds for people who have for years dreamed of a broader, more inclusive landscape. This place sprawls with its seemingly limitless ability to contain it all: every dream, aspiration, inspiration and realization, each nuanced individual goal and massive global concept. Energy never dissipates here. It expands, amplifies, and peoples itself.

***

When Rhiannon was around seven years old, Mike and I moved from Huntington Beach to Irvine, intent on escaping downtown sidewalks (at that time) littered with used condoms and hypodermics, where adolescent skateboarders would sooner roll over your toes than cede an inch of their trajectory and the summer tourists made guest parking a pipe dream. We retreated to the safety, cleanliness, and order of a first-class school system, landscaped medians, acres of parking lots and no less than five Targets within driving distance. We lost much in the process. I am glad to know that Rhiannon and her partner are concerned less with cocooning their two sons in cotton and convenience and more with exposing them to the wild and eclectic elements that germinate in the City of Angels. I’ve discovered that my daily changes in elevation offer me a visible contrast of perspectives, how one thing can shift and alter according to where one is standing, the landscape itself embodying the interplay and intersection of life at all levels. And all these stairs are making me strong again, increasing my endurance for the long haul, something I’m going to need as the next generation takes the stage.

Barefoot

barefoot
photo courtesy depositphotos

Just now

on an impulse

I slipped a foot out of shoe and

stepped on the grass.

It felt like baby fingers,

succulent green and plush.

And a breeze blew me back to

flat bellies on hot sidewalks,

sprinklers spraying diamond droplets

and ice melting in paper-cupped Koolaid.

I bet it’s been forty years since I spent

a whole summer day

outside

playing barefoot.

Fifty fitness

My thirty-year-old daughter is 5 months pregnant (with twins!) and I can’t help but relive my own pregnancy as she whines about the cumbersome tractor tire imprisoning her waistline. Outside of the wonder of creating life in the provenance of one’s belly, pregnancy engenders an urgent appreciation for the normal dimensions and mechanics of one’s body. Navigating the world with an extra 30-50 pounds of weight suddenly attached to your midsection makes you long to skip, jump, run, and dance to a degree not usually accessible when trying to build a routine exercise regime. My daughter swears that the first thing she’ll do after birthing The Guys (well, perhaps not the first thing….uncorking a bottle of champagne has been mentioned more than once) is slap on the spandex and begin moving vigorously in all directions. Shrinking back to fit within the outlines of one’s accustomed physical space almost overnight is, indeed, a giddy experience, one that can light a fire for intensive activity like nothing else.

Although I never considered myself overweight or awkward as a teenager or young adult, I was definitely not prone to running around with balls or sticks, migrating towards playing fields, joining teams, or sweating for pleasure. An athlete I was not, preferring the vistas made available through reading to the distant horizon of a finish line. But something about being dense and grounded by pregnancy propelled me into action once my daughter was born. I joined a gym (partly, I admit, because they offered free child care, a rare reprieve for a single, unemployed parent) and began the process of sculpting and toning muscles, building endurance, and inhabiting my own body in a manner I never had before. Because I was young and healthy and able to spend 2-3 hours a day working out, it did not take long to realize results. Within months I could do a strenuous aerobics class (oh the 80’s!,) lift weights for another hour, then wind up with a bout of intensive stretching before collecting the child and heading home. One Saturday morning, alone and on a whim, I ran ten miles just to see if could. (Although that was an isolated endeavor, folks; I never did have the stamina for enduring marathon-grade pain.) I felt glorious, distinctly remember appreciating the amazing capabilities of my body and promising myself never to let it slide back into lassitude and indolence again. Hah!

Me at my most fit0001

I present these two photos, taken some 25 years apart, as evidence of what happens when intention strays. That point in my life that allowed for daily hours-long workouts soon passed; I had a child to get off to school in the morning and a psychologically intense, emotionally-draining job that left me physically weary and more interested in accompanying co-workers to the bar than hitting the gym after work. Slowly, the weight crept on, not suddenly like pregnancy, but insidiously, over a long string of years, giving the lassitude and indolence firm purchase by the time I noticed the shapeless, plodding woman adjacent in the windows’ reflection was me. The accretion of pounds and loss of muscle accompanied the implacable vicissitudes of aging itself; the more weight padding my frame, the more recalcitrant my muscles, the heavier my bones, the stiffer my joints, the less likely I was to push myself through the interminable stretches of intense discomfort necessary to ameliorate the problem. Despite sporadic, albeit earnest, attempts to “get back in shape,” I was invariably defeated in the long run by my tendency to fall into books for pleasure, retreat to the kitchen for creative expression, and seek surcease of existential anxiety in the bottom of a wineglass. (For almost two decades, my husband’s and my primary recreational activity was restaurant dining.) By the time I was in my late 40’s I had all but given up. I did not have the energy or motivation needed to mount a campaign.

One of my fantasies of Peace Corps service was enforced starvation and exercise; I would return home after 27 months newly svelte from a dearth of edibles, desk chairs, and motorized vehicles. During the initial 3 months of training, forced to live with a Moldovan woman who subsisted largely on the abundance of her garden, slog up giant hills twice daily to language class, and endure the sweat bath of summer without air conditioning or fan, I did drop some 25 pounds with no forethought or planning. However, the minute I moved out on my own all hope was lost. (See above for the tendencies that perennially thwart me; surprisingly, those didn’t change with the geography.) I think I actually gained weight my last year, having befriended a group of hard-drinking, chain-smoking gourmands who introduced me to the burgeoning varieties of ethnic cuisine taking hold in Chisinau. (When $20 USD will buy you a 3 hour, five-course meal, with alcohol it’s hard to abstain.)

Now, weighing significantly more than I ever did pregnant, I find myself grounded in the Midwest, home base of the chronically obese, where there are more fast food restaurants per city block than telephone poles, gas stations, and grocery stores combined and lard is flavored twenty-nine ways and sold as a condiment. If one isn’t attentive it would be easy to collapse into the hammock of country fries and bacon grease. Alleviated from the time constraints of employment, isolated from the distractions of friends, family, and familiar territory, and suddenly attuned to the accelerating shrinkage of my lifeline, I am forcing myself to acknowledge that this is probably my final chance to recapture any vestige of the strength, flexibility and endurance that came so easily to me in my 20’s. Over the last six weeks of establishing a life here, I have pushed myself to incorporate incremental degrees of activity and allow longer stretches between alcoholic beverages and calorically-dense meals. Just today, focused on keeping the correct form while heaving barbells, I caught the faintest glimpse of the faded outlines of my long lost silhouette. For the first time in years, I allowed myself to believe it might actually still be in there, muffled by time and pounds and lethargy, but attainable if I keep myself on course.

Many of the Moldovans I know are rich in one regard: their daily lives generally incorporated a great deal of physical activity, from working in the garden to manual labor jobs to walking most everywhere they go.  Conversely, exercise is  something most Americans have to schedule into their day.  It’s one of the reasons I have been so loathe to seek employment now that I’m back: I dread sitting on my ass for eight hours every day

Realistically, any measure of success is a matter of years, not months, now and I will never have the lung power or joint support I took for granted in my 20s and 30s. But it’s starting to feel vaguely pleasant, rather than punishing, to be moving. I can climb the three floors to our apartment carrying bags of groceries without panting. I logged two miles in under 30 minutes yesterday (pathetic, I know, but more than I could do six weeks ago!)  I’m thinking when I arrive in California to help with The Guys I actually will have the stamina to do so.  Much like pregnancy, aging is a brilliant attention-getter.  It forces us to notice our bodies, to appreciate the freedom granted by mobility, the range of available activities that begin to narrow and slot one into the category of “old” if we let things slide.

I know I am nowhere near ready to be old.  Here’s to fifty fitness!

.

Story to Be Told

This one’s for you Maryam….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buyer’s remorse

For a short while before I actually relocated to Ohio, Mike would field the notion of us purchasing a house here; every couple of phone calls we would return to worry the pros and cons between us, for surely this would be a reasonable next step for us now that my global peregrinations have (at least for the time being) abated. Zillow lists the median price for a home in this area at $138k, about the price we paid for our 3-bedroom condo in Irvine 21 years ago. We could easily qualify on his salary alone; he is making more now than we both made together in 1995. On the face of it, it seems like a prudent decision. He’ll want to retire in the next 10-15 years and we’ll have a home that’s ours for the rest of our lives. Yet, unaccountably, I would mentally cross my arms and dig in my heels every time he mentioned it; my tendency was to lob the decision back into his court: “Well, if that’s what you want…” thereby signaling divestiture of any responsibility on my part. Why is that? I would think. Why am I so resistant to putting my name on a deed, assuming ownership of a piece of property and taking responsibility for its maintenance?

To me, having 20 years of home-ownership and a raft of friends and family members negotiating their own purchases, remodels and/or refinance packages, a house represents so much more than just a safe harbor from the elements. Ever the bourgeoisie yearning toward nobility, we have elevated the home into a personal statement, a shrine to our domestic aspirations, our creativity and artistic abilities, our purchasing power and entertainment proclivities. One can reside in an apartment, or even a rented house for that matter, and be reasonably excused from not displaying attractive shades of paint, double-pane windows, Sub-zero appliances, or custom maple flooring. But once you own that home? Well, come on now, we all do it: crossing the threshold into a new acquaintance’s home for the first time, we begin a subtle inventory of the environment, each wall-hanging, end table, throw rug, light fixture, and counter-top a physical embodiment of that person’s aesthetic sense, an external expression of their interior life and mental landscaping. We learn much about people’s values and priorities in observing the choices they make regarding their domestic surroundings. It is glaringly apparent in Moldova, where those having the means segregate themselves from the downtrodden behind block walls and painted, wrought-iron fences enclosing fabulous gardens and multi-storied fortresses with tiled interiors, Ikea kitchens, and wedding-cake window treatments. (Walk outside that gate and encounter dust-laden roads with pot-holes wading-pool deep, stray dogs with gaping wounds licking fly-laden cartons amidst strewn trash, and men in the final throws of alcoholism face down in their own piss, but that’s not your problem. Casa ta este foarte frumos. And this is not an issue exclusive to Moldova, by any means, just one made more obvious by their juxtaposition. We here in America have learned how to segregate our poverty.)

Every day, I struggle against the impulsiveness of my own acquisitiveness. Target, CVS, Costco – they are all destinations laden with temptation for me. I am particularly prone to lotions, potions and culinary gadgetry: wave a civet-scented, buffalo-tallow-based body moisturizer, chocolate-infused balsamic reduction, or stainless-steel herb slicer in my face and it’s in the basket before I’ve even noted the price. I find my hand wavering now in the drugstore beauty section: is that Moroccan argan-oil smoothing treatment really going to improve the quality of my life? Is it worth the money I’ll spend, the clutter it will add to the narrow bathroom sink, the trash it will end up becoming when the contents of the bottle are gone?

I remember all too clearly the agonizing decisions that attended the dispersal of twenty years’ accumulated furniture, house wares, clothing, tchotchkes and mementos. Every object became that much heavier, knowing that holding on came with a cost and letting go meant forever. I want to prettify my new bedroom, yet know it will take hours and hours of scouring Goodwill, Craigslist, or the local flea markets to find those specific pieces which will accurately reflect my interior landscape, the aesthetic ethic that prioritizes reuse, recycling, and re-purposing over built-in obsolescence but is generally too lazy to see a decor from concept through to fruition. I am vulnerable to the knowledge that anything I end up choosing says something about how I wish other’s to see me and so increasingly opt not to choose anything at all. Buying a house would bring on a horde of mind-cluttering decisions that I just don’t want to entertain. Paint, molding, flooring, sinks, towel racks, faucets, window coverings – shit. I’d rather read a book, take a walk, plan dinner, and write.

I am reminded, also, of a proclivity I had in childhood. My little sister and I (me in the position of Project Manager, of course) would spend hours setting up our Barbie Dream House, Kitchen Carousel, Vanity Bedroom, and vast collection of molded plastic furniture, Barbie-sized vehicles and wardrobes. With each passing birthday and Christmas, our collection became grander until our delight in the pastime was invested almost exclusively in the planning and set-up; nine times out of ten, by the time we had finished negotiating territory, diagramming architecture, meticulously constructing, then (inevitably) rearranging our fantasy Barbie world, we had little time, imagination, or interest remaining to actually play with the dolls themselves. Such foreshadowing: life becomes so dense with acquisition and planning that either we lose impetus or leave no time for the actual experience.

***

Each moment is a choice. What aging reveals to most of us is that the routine decision-track our culture programs us to follow – college major, profession, marriage, home, babies – has huge implications for conscripting our attention, creativity, and energy for years and years and years. Intercourse takes an instant (or 30, I guess, if there’s foreplay) yet its consequences may join you for a lifetime. Purchasing a home, on average, takes a handful of months; for the subsequent 15-30 years many of your future options will be influenced, conscripted, or curtailed by the need to pay that monthly mortgage. As my lifeline shrinks with each passing year, I find myself increasingly troubled by these seemingly practical decisions that threaten to catch me up, tie me down, or force me a hand I don’t wish to play. I marvel at how the past five years continue to pulse within me, alive and rich and meaningful, whereas the bulk of time from when I was 35 to 49 resembles a foggy, impenetrable valley between the craggy peaks of youth and the paradigm-shattering day I lost my job. A few years ago I attempted a journal exercise, to string a lifeline of significant memories from my earliest to the present day through discreet decades. I scribbled madly along through the first 5-6 pages, recalling kindergarten playmates, newborn pets, neighborhood bullies, schoolyard embarrassments, and classroom crushes. Clear as day were recollections of Humboldt, nights of Ecstasy, travels through Big Sur, dynamic debates in college seminars and the brain explosions they induced, my sister’s death, my daughter’s birth, my impetuous first marriage, and the night Mike and I kissed for the first time. But then the memories abruptly dropped off, disappearing into that long low valley obscured by a hazy sameness, an undifferentiated terrain that did not change, year after year after year. For three pages, representing the years 1990 through 2010, I recorded exactly five memories: interviewing at Canyon Acres, breaking my ankle; marrying Mike, traveling to South America, and losing my job. Otherwise, my time line lay undistinguished and mute, terrifying in its utter blankness. With each moment so precious and ever dwindling, how did I let a huge swath of my life be swept under a rug?

Comparing the last five years with that monstrous erased portion of time, I find that the key lies in change. I stayed in the same house, worked for the same employer, was married to the same man, drove the same freeways, shopped at the same markets, and palled around with the same folks for one long, unbroken marathon of years. And I realize that for some people this is the epitome of happiness: routine, predictability, the sense of accomplishment and having arrived into the fullness of one’s life is the essence of success. You’ve hit all the markers and walked off with the prize. Yet how come literature and music and film are replete with those characters who, having wrested the trophy from the clutches of adversity with much personal sacrifice, find themselves intoning that age-old litany: Is that all there is?

I happened upon an excerpt from the German psychologist Marc Wittman’s recent book Felt Time: the Psychology of How We Perceive Time that explains much to me:

In order to feel that one’s life is flowing more slowly — and fully — one might seek out new situations over and over to have novel experiences that, because of their emotional value, are retained by memory over the long term. Greater variety makes a given period of life expand in retrospect. Life passes more slowly. If one challenges oneself consistently, it pays off, over the years, as the feeling of having lived fully — and, most importantly, of having lived for a long time.

I want to live, actually live, for a long more time. I am awed by the fragility of my existence, its propensity to slide towards ennui when I don’t consciously mind my moments. I wish to handle it reverently, like a newborn babe, breathing in all its potentials while remaining aware of how my choices manifest them, or not. Life is such an awesome responsibility, such a burgeoning gift that responds abundantly in rewarding our attention, yet how little of it we sometimes pay. Those five regrets of the dying volleyed through the internet a number of years ago were each the echo of decisions made, reverberations of unmindful choices that struck their last resounding knell over people’s death beds. My 73-year-old father, in one poignant sentence over the breakfast table, summed up his sudden sense of urgency upon recovering from a scary bout of viral meningitis: I feel like I’m running out of time. It is unfortunate that it often takes a brush with catastrophe to set those alarm bells ringing. Then again, such presents us with the mercurial opportunity for gratitude even in our darkest hours, like the (truly) immortal line of OneRepublic’s jubilant anthem Counting Stars: Everything that kills me makes me feel alive.

I’m still undecided about the house. And I’m going to live with that for now.

Trading down for uptime

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

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

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

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

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

We must become ignorant of all that we have been taught

And be instead bewildered.

Run from what is profitable and comfortable.

If you drink those liqueurs

You will spill the spring waters of your real life.

Forget safety.  Live where you fear to live.

Destroy your reputation, be notorious.

I have tried prudent planning for long enough.

From now on I live mad.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s Next?

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

Another chapter to be written in the Book of Revelation.

Leaving Home to Find It, Once Again

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.

Year three and counting….

 

On Marriage

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’t want 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.

 

The Ticking of Here and Now

There is a clock that lives in my apartment, one of the generic, analog, moon-faced varieties that probably hung above the doorway of your second-grade classroom. This one ticks audibly, loudly. When my friend Nic spends the night I invariably find it on the counter in the morning, battery removed; the metronomic thudding makes it impossible for her to sleep.

In a sense, it does me, too. Though it’s rhythmic pulsing fades from my consciousness at night and any insomnia I occasionally experience is not related to its noise, I am very conscious of it during the daytime hours. At least ten times a day I find myself tuning in to its beat, all thought leaving as my mind traces an on/off pattern, now it’s here, now it’s gone – tick, tick, tick, tick, moments passing by – the space between the ticks as full and round as the sound of the tick itself. It is a constant, unflagging reminder of what Peace Corps has given me: a veritable abundance of sweet and spacious, uncluttered and uncomplicated time.

The sense of having time is subtle. What does it mean to “have time?” It’s not as if it’s a possession, something I am keeping on a shelf or in a pocket. And there are no more minutes or hours in a day here than comprised the days of my former life. So why do I feel such an unbridled sense of its openness and potential, here and now? Like the clopping of an unhurried horse’s hooves down a tree-shaded country lane, the rhythm of my days is slow and steady, unrestricted, melodic, yet there is still a sense of movement, as if being carried away by a piece of music. One isn’t goal-directed, waiting impatiently for the notes to progress in order to reach an end but, instead, relaxes into a skein of connected points that expands and sways, movement becoming space, time becoming a place to inhabit rather than pass.

I have thought about this question persistently over the past year (I just marked my year-long anniversary of living in Strașeni.) I have been, and continue to be, so happy here without any of the usual suspects to thank. My husband, daughter, parents, siblings and life-long friends are thousands of miles away. I am not making money, nor am I squirreling any away. I don’t have an important position with a serious title and a well-appointed office. I don’t have a car or even a bicycle. No dishwasher or dryer or big screen TV or juicer (oh, how I loved my juicer!) or access to world-class cuisine or Target or multiplex theaters or hiking trails or beach, all of the afore-mentioned representing, of course, basic accoutrements of the past three decades of my life. My world consists, primarily, of three rooms and a community of Moldovan elderly outside my door. Sometimes I don’t leave the center for days at a time. There are weekends when the only person I see is the cook in the shelter kitchen when I go to get my water. I have gone 48 hours without speaking a word. More than once.

So why? Why am I happy? This is an important question to contemplate, obviously, as the notion of `the pursuit of happiness’ is something wired into every American’s DNA, it seems. (No other culture I’ve experienced appears to feel quite so entitled to its attainment and persistant presence as us, but that’s another story altogether.) So, after ruminating on it for the past year through all this spacious time I’ve been afforded, here are some key elements that I have identifed at its source:

Predictable Change

How’s that for oxymoronic? And yet it’s the best way to describe the flow of my experience in Moldova. While there are aspects of my life that have become routine and stable – my presence here at the center amidst its bustling activities, the relationships that bind me to the group of PCVs whom I arrived here with in June 2012, the rutiera drivers who whisk me down the familiar highway to Chișinău once or twice a week, the burgeoning grocery store in town (that now carries peanut butter and lentils!) – I know that the commitments, people, projects, and events that populate my calendar will shift, grow, wane, blossom, fade and most definitely change from month to month. One week I might find myself writing a grant request for a civic engagement project and the next I am looking for funding for a traditional embroidery class. In the morning I may meet with a woman building a professional development organization for youth and two hours later I am in the adjunct director’s office at USAID seeking support for a United Way chapter in Moldova. I am invited to an International Women’s Club mentoring meeting at the English ambassor’s residence, a board meeting at Neoumanist, and a poetry reading at the Pushkin museum, all in the same day.

For twenty years I worked for one organization, day in and day out. The only significant difference in my weekly schedule happened when I was promoted into a new position every 4-5 years. But even then, the mission was unvaried, my colleagues remained largely the same, and the route I drove to work changed only once, when our offices moved to the next town over. Almost every moment of every week was routinized; I could practically sleepwalk through the days and for many years I’m afraid that’s exactly what I did.

In Peace Corps, conversely, I’ve had the opportunity to work with folks trying to start an eco-community, complete with training center, workshops, and housing; along with two other volunteers, I planned and executed a 20th anniversary commemorative event for Peace Corps Moldova: a two week long walk across the country in which PCVs, Moldovan youth, Peace Corps staff, media, and the American Ambassador and his wife participated; I have helped a hundred or more Moldovans attain or improve English speaking ability; I have entertained service volunteers from Holland and Austria who have come to help at my center; I have helped to facilitate a giant Winter Bazaar where thousands of people from across Moldova get a cross-cultural experience of food and displays from a variety of countries. I have attended wine and music festivals, parades, christenings, agricultural expositions, craft fairs, birthday parties, forest picnics, climbed waterfalls, hiked alongside flower-filled fields, toured ancient monasteries, and relaxed in a multitude of saunas – all as part of my `work’ here in Moldova. I have learned to speak Romanian, build a Joomla website, fashion adobe structures, and make fantastic borsch. And I have still had the time and opportunity to travel to Turkey, Morocco, Ukraine, Romania, England, Scotland, Austria, Germany, Hungary, Slovakia, and Italy, to boot. If you would have told me five years ago that these types of experiences would be filling my monthly calendar one day, I wouldn’t have had a clue how to make them happen nor where I would have found the time. This life is anything but monotonous. And it affords me plenty of leisure hours to fill with what I will.

The 48-hour window

I once called a Moldovan woman on a Friday morning to set up a meeting for the following Monday. She expressed dismay, but as I began to apologize, explaining that I just located her number, she cut me off. “How could I possible schedule a meeting that far in advance? I have no idea what I’ll be doing Monday!” One of my friends living in a small village got an urgent call at 8pm the other night. It was her former host mom, imploring her to come over immediately – “Get your shoes on, don’t even stop to comb your hair!” Mumbling and grumbling she arrived at the house to find her host father’s birthday celebration in full swing. When I lived with Nina in Hîncești it was not unusual to be rousted from my bedroom on a Wednesday evening to join five Avon representatives in her kitchen for a formal recognition ceremony, replete with cognac and sarmale. Seriously, this is how the majority of Moldovans run their lives. It seems to violate some unspoken cultural principle to plan anything more than an hour in advance. Invitations to major events are issued a mere 48 hours prior to their occurrence. Apparently the general predilection for avoiding any type of scheduled commitments guarantees that people’s calendars will be free.

While the downsides of this erratic approach to the future are obvious and challenging, I have come to appreciate, finally, the degree of spontaneity and clarity it brings to my day-to-day life. I remember looking at my calendar sometimes back home and feeling weighed down by the merry-go-round of meetings and repetitive appointments that cluttered its pages. Before I had even lived through the hours they had become burdensome to me, heavy in their sameness and predictability, regimented blocks of blacked out time that precluded any possibility of impulsivity or escape. It seemed sometimes like heavy blinds had been drawn across my week, occluding my view of anything but work. By the time I got home in the evening all that seemed remotely possible was a movie or a book and a glass (or two) of wine.

Now, my life is lived mostly within a 48 hour window. Rarely do I know for sure what I might be doing tomorrow, much less next week. (If I do, the event tends to loom like a forbidding monster, daring me to ignore it.) Being a person without appointments can make one giddy, especially if you notice and appreciate their absence. I feel lighter, freer, more apt to stay up late on a Thursday night watching a documentary, or ride into Chișinău on a Monday afternoon to buy walnuts at the piața, or travel to a friend’s house for cinema night on a Friday evening. I have lots and lots of wiggle room, despite the myriad projects I’m engaged in. And I know that any day, anything can happen. Suddenly. Spontaneously. Like it or not.

The Absence of Advertising

Surprisingly, this is perhaps the most important ingredient, deep down, of my happiness. Back in the States, I would not have counted myself as a person susceptible to or overly affected by advertising. After all, I did not watch TV (my media viewing consisted of Netflix movies or consuming an entire boxed TV series in one two-week marathon.) My print intake was comprised primarily of ad-free (The Sun) or ad-responsible (The Nation) magazines after the New York Times became exorbitantly expensive. I lived in a city that prohibited billboard advertising. Having been largely removed from its pernicious, pervasive presence for the past 20 months, however, I have gained a new appreciation for how insidiously it inveigles its way into our lives, infecting us with a viral dissatisfaction, an itchy restlessness one can never quite reach or isolate, a subtle simmering of our brain cells urging us to hurry up and buy something, go somewhere, eat something, do something, consume, consume, consume – experiences, foods, events, locations, people. There is always something better, faster, smarter, cooler, tastier, more absorbing or fun or rewarding or relaxing or enlightening or brilliant happening somewhere else, over the rainbow.

Now I realize that a seemingly innocuous errand to buy some dog food or replace a tube of mascara, a trip to the dry cleaners or the dentist, a drive down the freeway or lunch in a chain restaurant would subject me to subtle – and not so subtle – inflammations of desire, a low-level yammering of advertisements and enticements that are so integrated into our existence we think we don’t notice them anymore. But now, I remember my eyes wandering up to the HD television screen in our neighborhood Islands or Chili’s, fixating on all the beautiful people riding waves or skiing slopes or sailing seas or jumping impossibly high with balls. I recall being mesmerized by the shiny boxes, sleek bottles, cunning compacts and cellophane wrappers in drugstores, each item promising to lift or erase or smooth or somehow improve me. Or standing in the checkout line, eyeing the alluring rack of lamb garnished with a sprig of mint and a tempting glaze or the newest celebrity d’jour touting the benefits of homeopathic remedies or Bikram yoga, beckoning to me from the adjacent magazine covers. There were those brilliant white teeth of the playful youths tumbling over each other, laughing, mouths framed by perfect skin and abundant manes, that graced a poster on the wall of my dental hygienist’s office. (Smile Bright makes everything Right.) The lush beach, fringed in palms and blanketed in blue sky, flashing by on the side of a passing bus, promising a different, warmer, brighter sun would shine upon me in Cancun. Even my box of granola would tell a story, of an idealistic farmer, a family plot, and a lofty vision, fields of grain undulating out to the horizon. I really was surrounded, day in and day out, with messages that shaped, altered, and shifted the accepted motivators in my world.

Advertising has yet to catch hold, become sophisticated or hypnotic here. While packaged food is increasingly more prevalent, it comes in pretty generic containers sans fancy claims or mythic properties. The faded ad for a beach holiday in the Crimea stuffed into the plastic holders on the backs of the headrests in my local rutiera hasn’t changed since I moved to Strașeni (come on guys, no one’s going to be vacationing there these days…) The young lady adorned in a taffeta evening gown plastered to the side of the small dress boutique downtown looks like someone who went to my high school (and I know I saw that same dress at my senior prom.) The local news anchors lean against each other awkwardly on a peeling billboard: his haircut is ragged and his teeth are gray, her jacket strains to covers the muffin top around her waist. And any commercials played in my vicinity are either in Russian or a rapid-fire Romanian that exceeds any capacity I have or want to comprehend.

I never appreciated how incomplete I was being made to feel by the barrage of images and messages constantly pressing at the edges of my awareness. Not until I had lived here for some time did I notice the absence of a certain nervous energy, the abatement of a small but nagging sense of inadequacy reminding me constantly that there was always something more that my lifestyle was inexplicably missing. Was it a dress? A car? A vacation? A concert, or a sporting event, or play? Maybe a new cookbook or a sharper set of knives…a balance ball…or a tapestry for the wall?

Other than food, here is the list of items I’ve purchased while living in Moldova: two pair of cotton socks, a set of sheets, a carrot grater and some headphones.  Yet I feel richer, calmer, happier and more confident than any time since  I was six years old.

So what does this absence of advertising have to do with time, you ask? Well, it helps me tremendously to be present exactly where I’m at, possessed of an adequate supply of material goods to fulfill my basic needs and not much more to mind. Cleaning my whole apartment takes about an hour and a half. I do one load of laundry a week. When I shop, I buy only that which I can carry the half mile down the dirt road back to my house. There is a dearth of entertainment to be had in my neck of the woods. Strașeni has one restaurant; it serves unremarkable pizza. I know some of you reading this are shuddering, wondering if I’ve capsized and sank below the surface of 21st century life. But, really, I haven’t. I have a computer and 20 G of data a month, which gives me access to an endless supply of books and movies and music and news and yoga videos and online classes and recipes, all without commercials.

But that vague restlessness is gone. I have found myself pleased to gaze out the window at the birds in the trees for up to ten minutes at a time. Or listen to a guided meditation whenever the whim arises. Or spend an entire afternoon composing a blog post about all the time I find to myself these days.

***

It is almost a cliché to say that one receives much more than one gives through Peace Corps service. I am no different. The gratitude I experience everyday for this experience sometimes overwhelms me. I feel like I’ve won a lottery that few people in the world even know about or bother to enter.  Increasingly, I see unstructured, goalless time as a humane and necessary antidote to the jet-propelled, anxiety laced lives most Americans have become accustomed to.  (I have been mentally composing a piece on Basic Guaranteed Income for months now. While I firmly believe that it’s an idea whose time has come, I still haven’t found the correct tone or manner of presentation that wouldn’t make my entire family and friend network believe that I’ve succumbed to socialist propaganda.)  Every morning upon surfacing back to consciousness, I say a fervent thank you to the universe for blessing me with this time. And the ever-present ticking of that clock, like the sound of one hand clapping, amplifies the echoing of spaciousness between the seconds and reminds me that I am always here, and it is forever now.