Just as a piece of matter detaches itself from the sun to live as a wholly new creation so I have come to feel about my detachment from America. Once the separation is made a new order is established, and there is no turning back. For me, the sun had ceased to exist; I had myself become a blazing sun. And like all other suns of the universe I had to nourish myself from within.
Henry Miller from The Cosmological Eye
I would be lying if I didn’t admit that at various points during the past year I have wondered whether I would make it to 2014 here in Moldova. Especially during those stark winter months after returning from Morocco, when I had no partner or assignment and the only bump in my weekly calendar was three hours of language lessons, I would fondle thoughts of hoisting the white flag and emerging from the trenches of my despair to board a jet plane back to America. With barely nine hours of daylight to fill, I was dog paddling each day through despondency, trying to hold my head up despite having nothing to plan for beyond my next meal. Once, my mood got so bleak that I Skyped my sister-in-law and had her walk outside with her laptop and hold it aloft to the blazing California sun just to remind myself that it still existed.
It was exactly during one of those low points, having called home for the fifteenth time in a matter of weeks, that my father offered me a ticket to surprise my mother for her 70th birthday. I was hesitant, but really only for about two minutes. My solemn vow not to ‘waste’ any of my precious 48 vacation days to return to the US sidled out the back door – I desperately wanted, needed, to feel at home again. Because my mom’s birthday conflicted with Turul Moldovei 2013 – the only project I had going at the time – we decided on Mother’s Day, instead. I hung up the phone and purchased a ticket. It was February 8th. Only 3 month and 3 days to go.
Thus began the countdown of anxiety. What would it actually feel like to be home again? So good I couldn’t stand the thought of returning? How much had things changed during the year I’d been gone? Would I feel strange, different, separate, alienated? Should I have accepted this expensive gift from my father when I had so fervently committed to being gone for 27 months? Was I cheating somehow? If I did indeed return would it make the second year even harder – having to say goodbye to everybody yet again, this time knowing what was in store for me?
As fate would have it, soon after I bought the ticket I was offered the opportunity to relocate to my current site. Daylight increased, the snow melted, and spring made a show-stopping appearance almost overnight. My new apartment was lovely – located in a senior center full of laughing, warm, and gregarious souls who immediately enveloped me in a circle of hospitality and friendship. I had a workplace, a partner, and an assignment. For the first time since pre-service training, I was busy.
My anxiety about going home increased.
Why was I tempting fate? I had made it through my first winter, probably the roughest patch I would experience during my service. Life was brighter, my mood was elevated, and things were finally falling into place. Why interrupt the flow with a step backwards? Would Moldova end up paling when placed under the bright lights of America? But the non-refundable ticket was purchased; good idea or not, I was going home.
And, indeed, the tears burst forth the moment I clutched my daughter in the airport. In the 27 years since her birth, I had never gone longer than four or five months without seeing her. This time, the passage of time was readily apparent. My little girl was finally, irrevocably gone; this was a full-fledged woman I was greeting. How could I have left her for so long? Can one year alter a face, a posture, a presence so greatly?
More tears when I locked onto my husband’s eyes through the windshield as he pulled the Jeep up to the curb at LAX. I was transported back to the last half of 2011 and the idyllic interlude of our journey across America: just the two of us and our dog exploring the national parks and forests, camping, hiking, cooking our meals under the stars until summer bled into autumn. His presence in the driver’s seat brought it all back. If there was one thing that could make me abandon all, it would be the chance to recapture those months and sit beside him through those miles again.
The tears let loose again when I felt myself revert back 40 years, suddenly a little girl again in her mother’s arms. To heighten the surprise, I had hidden in my brother’s backyard (he and my sister-in-law were hosting the Mother’s Day celebration.) When my mom came in the house, I called her from my iPad on the Google voice number I use in Moldova. I asked her if she could hear me, as I always do when commencing a call. I was surprised when she said she couldn’t (geez, I was barely 50 feet away!) I began the Verizon riff: “Can you hear me now? Can you hear me now?” as I made my way into the house. When I finally came around the corner of the hallway, I added “Because I’m right here.” Her legs promptly gave way and she fell in a heap on the floor in front of me. (My dad said it was worth every penny of the ticket.)
Yet, there were also little things that caught me off guard. My dogs barely acknowledged me. Unlike those YouTube videos of returned soldiers whose dogs about explode when they walk in the door, mine acted as if I’d just rounded the corner from the bedroom.
Everything seemed inordinately expensive. I spent the equivalent of my entire PC monthly stipend on one trip to Target to ‘pick up a few things.’ A dinner out with friends could have bought me ten nights out at Pizzamania in Moldova (with wine.) Parking for an hour at the beach would buy two round trip bus tickets from my village into Chișinău.
And the cars. The endless stream of cars. The streets built for a multitude of vehicles and the sound and smell of them filling the atmosphere. The parking lots – acres and acres of parking lots. I’d never noticed how much space is devoted to parking cars in America. And how people drive everywhere, mostly alone in a bubble of their own creation. No sweaty armpits shoved in their faces. No jostling for space among strangers, wondering if you should buy a seat for your bags. But also a huge, artificial border. As if we each existed on our own space ship, controlled our own climate, sped through the day alone.
Mostly, everything was the same as it was when I first decided I needed to go. Sitting with my friends, listening to them talk about their jobs and homes and weekend excursions and new purchases, I felt strangely apart. These concerns, realities, worries, and excitements were no longer mine. They hadn’t been for more than two and a half years. Sifting through the mercurial sands of memory, I remembered that I had consciously desired, then chosen to separate myself from this world. I had wanted to nourish myself from within.
And when – after 27 hours of international flights, transfers, security checks, baggage claim, visa stamps, bus rides and a twenty minute hike down a dirt road with my luggage – I finally turned the key in the lock and entered back into my sunlit, solitary, sparsely furnished domain, I felt the warm welcome of home.
Moldova appears just a bit different to me now. A little more lush. A little less alien. Perhaps it’s the just the abundance of spring – the thunderstorms, the nesting birds, the bursting palette of flowers. Or the unbridled enthusiasm and genuine smiles of all those who exclaimed at my return. Or maybe the ticking clock that steadily punctuates the blanketing silence in my very own apartment – the first I’ve had in fifty-one years of life on this planet.
I know now, for the very first time, that I did the right thing. I have become my own sun.
One of the more difficult aspects of my service in Hîncești is having to live with a roommate – or sora gazda, as she is called here. Nina is always gracious and warm to me, but it is still strange to move in with someone you just met and whose language and culture you are still learning. The most difficult part about it is being in another woman’s kitchen and bathroom – very intimate and personal places for most women, at least in the United States. I am still not comfortable leaving my shampoo and razor in the shower, or storing my towels in her bathroom cabinet, or intruding into the kitchen cupboards with baking supplies, or preparing a full-fledged meal when she is at home. It feels as if I am encroaching on her habitat; after all, I’ve been here about six weeks now and she still has her clothes in the wardrobe and pictures of her daughter hanging on the wall in my room. I feel more like a transitory guest here than a renter with a two-year contract; perhaps I will move beyond this feeling in time, but for now, I keep my activities very circumscribed when she is at home and mostly live in my room.
So, on the weekends when Nina travels to her village farm, I get pretty excited. Almost like I’m a teenager again and my parents have left me at home alone. Only instead of breaking out the bong and beer keg, I buy pasta, tomatoes, and garlic and do some cooking. On Sunday, Lindsey came over and prepared a bunch of wonderful salads – egg, potato, and cabbage with carrots – that furnished a relaxing picnic by the lake. (Lindsey is an accomplished cook and loves to experiment in the kitchen; I have been the lucky recipient of a couple of her concoctions!)
Matt and Patty H joined us. I spend a lot of time with these three so it’s a good thing we all get along. In fact, it is beginning to concern me the amount of time that we spend together. It is too easy to find comfort in the company of the familiar – no matter their age, gender, or provenance, they are AMERICANS. People who immediately understand a reference to Walmart shoppers or reality TV shows or soccer moms or Starbucks. (Ok, Matt and Lindsey probably don’t know who Eldridge Cleaver is, but how often does his name come up, really?) You don’t realize how much these shared cultural allusions pepper conversation, standing in for extraneous explication, allowing one to abbreviate and link ideas more efficiently. It’s truly gratifying just being with people that come from the same place you do – and now that place stretches the length and width of the nation. I am amazed how much I have in common with people with whom I would never have imagined being friends.
The most trenchant experience, I’ve found, that Peace Corps provides is to continuously drop you in social contexts which you would never elect at home. Some are more comfortable than others. But in every case, you learn more about yourself: you attain new altitudes of tolerance, irritation ,adaptibility, diplomacy, patience, curiousity, and compassion. It is a common experience for us to have different personas or „masks” that we wear in different situations. But here, it’s as if the change goes deeper. Being thrown together with a group of people that would ordinarily never coalesce within my purview, and then sharing such startling and foreign circumstances with them, changes the channels of my emotions, my reasoning, and my needs. I think differently, feel differently. My inner space is expanding, accommodating more and simultaneously losing landscape quickly. Things are mobile, transitory. And I hold on to these Americans in a desperate effort to grasp those orienting touchstones slipping from my world.
Moldova is very different from other foreign countries, like Guatemala, or Peru, or Ecuador, that I’ve visited. In those places, being from “America” (read the USA) made you special, as if there were an invisible halo surrounding you, or your fingers emitted sparkles, or your laugh tickled people’s funny bone. In those places, the children would gather round me in puddles, lapping up my attention, fingering my clothing like it was made of stardust. People smiled spontaneously at me on the street. I felt a little like a Kardashian, celebrity as categorical referent. Moldova? Not so much. In conversation, I have asked Mldovans about 9/11. Disneyland. Hollywood. The Golden Gate bridge. Nope. Nah, no ințelege. Not a clue. How do you find common ground with someone whose never hear of Batman? Mickey Mouse? Star Wars?
Sunday, I found myself lying on my back on the grass, watching the clouds roil above me and listening to conversation (eu ințeleg) drift over me. The sun was diamond glinting the lake and birds were skittering through the reeds. Almost, I could have been lying by a lake in Orange County. Just for a moment, a small enclave carved itself out from the turbulence of the past three months and gleamed warm and radiant. And I realized that I was retreating into another safe haven, that I have made my site mates into my little private Idaho (another cultural reference.) And the final step in my integration will be to attain this level of comfort in the house where I live with the person that is my roommate.
When (if) I do, I will have achieved one important goal of this journey.
If all the days that come to pass
Are behind these walls
I’ll be left at the end of things
In a world kept small
Travel far from what i know
I’ll be swept away
I need to know I can be lost and not afraid
Remember we’re lost together
Remember we’re the same
We hold the burning rhythm in our hearts
We hold the flame
A pair of lovely sisters- good friends of my daughter – posted/reposted this on Facebook. It gave me pause:
the area of pause
you have to have it or the walls will close
you have to give everything up, throw it
away, everything away.
you have to look at what you look at
or think what you think
or do what you do
without considering personal
without accepting guidance.
people are worn away with
they hide in common
their concerns are herd
few have the ability to stare
at an old shoe for
or to think of odd things
like who invented the
they become unalive
because they are unable to
listen to their untrue
I had never read this before, but it’s startling how clearly Bukowski pinpoints the underlying emotion of “what fifty feels like” for me. I needed a “pause” from my life, a way to look at it from a distance, examine its contours and facets and weigh its true value on the scale of my soul. My Peace Corps experience is a means for me to do this. I have definitely taken a step back and out.
I love people. Everybody. I love them, I think, as a stamp collector loves his collection. Every story, every incident, every bit of conversation is raw material for me. My love’s not impersonal yet not wholly subjective either. I would like to be everyone, a cripple, a dying man, a whore, and then come back to write about my thoughts, my emotions, as that person.* But I am not omniscient. I have to live my life, and it is the only one I’ll ever have. And you cannot regard your own life with objective curiosity all the time…
Sylvia Plath was 18 years old when she wrote that in her journal. What a beautiful meditation on resiliency, curiousity, and embracing life whole heartedly. It inspires me.
This morning a gathering of good and generous souls set me in their midst and laid their gentle hands upon me. A sacred blessing and many heartfelt salutations; a sense of serenity and holiness pervades and sustains as I make the first step on this long-awaited journey:
Here I am,
I’m waiting for a better day
A second chance
A little luck to come my way
A hope to dream, a hope that I can sleep again
And wake in the world with a clear conscience and clean hands
‘Cause all that you have is your soul
So don’t be tempted by the shiny apple
Don’t you eat of a bitter fruit
Hunger only for a taste of justice
Hunger only for a world of truth
‘Cause all that you have is your soul
“When we get out of the glass bottles of our ego, and when we escape like squirrels turning in the cages of our personality and get into the forests again, we shall shiver with cold and fright but things will happen to us so that we don’t know ourselves. Cool, unlying life will rush in, and passion will make our bodies taut with power, we shall stamp our feet with new power and old things will fall down, we shall laugh, and institutions will curl up like burnt paper.”
― D.H. Lawrence
I don’t know why, but this reminds me of the way I have felt for the last eighteen months, waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting to escape the glass bottle of my ego, the wire fences of my relationships that keep me spinning in the same circles. There are places in this world where I am not known, where I don’t know myself. Because we do take our cues from our surroundings, our fellow actors, the lighting, the circumstances, the part for which we auditioned (so intentionally or accidentally) and got. The forest is vast and foreign and filled with noises. I am about to be a Stranger in a Strange Land and I shall laugh and the old things will fall down and the stalwart scaffolding of who I am will scatter like burnt curls of paper.