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.

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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……

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Serendipity does translate into Romanian, after all.

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

Vara #2: Turul Moldovei 2013!

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

And every single moment was absolutely worth it.

***

100_2741
Sue, diplomatically fielding the 102nd call from PC administration…
100_2743
Tori, TM’s most accomplished Romanian speaker, negotiating with a Moldovan vendor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

South Taraclia - old manThe picture of a lifetime

***

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

Poftim Moldova. Drum Bun!

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

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

Vara #1: Another spin in the cycle

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

On Wednesday, June 5, at 12:45pm, a group of 51 new Peace Corp Trainees landed at Chișinău airport to a great deal of noise and fanfare on the part of the M27s who were perched on the roof to greet them.  I was surprised to see and feel the giddy anticipation, which quickly morphed into unbridled emotion (tears and all), this particular event evoked within us now 1-year-old volunteers.  It was an electric tingling of excitement mingled with sentimental hope for the newcomers, sprinkled with a sense of awe, self-confidence and pride at how distant that moment seems last June when we landed on the exact same tarmac, google-eyed and weary. Life feels so different now.  So normal. Routine.  We have made it.  And most of them will, too.

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

I stood outside the the terminal exit along with the other mentors and watched as each one of them emerged, wheeling a cart with all their baggage for their next 27 months, and witnessed the play of emotions dance across their tired faces.  I experienced it all again – the fear, the exhaustion, the confusion, the gut-churning anxiety that accompanied my first glimpse of my new home.  Accompanying them on the bus back to Chișinău, I noted how some of them couldn’t stop asking questions while others seemed steeped in silence, deep in a world of their own.  Watching them interact with Peace Corps staff and other mentors at hub site during a quick pizza lunch, I witnessed some of them flit about the room like newly hatched butterflies, while others looked as if they’d like to crawl back into a cocoon. And I knew all of these observations were no indication of how they would develop as volunteers.  You just never can tell….

***

The following Friday, June 7th, was our actual anniversary date and our entire Stauceni class – minus Jan and Leslie, who ET’d (Early Termination) back in October, and Quinn, who was conducting a summer camp – gathered at Robyn’s house in a village near the Romanian border to celebrate.  I took a train with Georgie directly from my village to Robyn’s raion center – a 10 minute bus ride from her village – for 9 lei.  (That’s less than 75 cents American, folks.)  It was fantastic.  We got to sit on benches at a graceful distance from our fellow riders, no armpits in our noses and with an actual open window blowing fresh air on our faces (which helped dispel some of the noxious fumes from the 6 boxes of live chickens in the back of the compartment.)

Robyn, with mushroom
Robyn, with mushroom

 

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

Robyn is one of the most thoroughly integrated volunteers I know.  She lives in a small village where she never hears English, which has brought her Romanian to beautifully articulated fluency.  She is surrounded by Moldovan neighbors, friends and work partners – there is not an American to be found within at least 50-60 kilometers.  And this is just fine with her.  She has a large garden, fruit and nut trees, a cat, and a four room house complete with modern bathroom all to herself.  The view from her front porch is one of the most glorious I’ve come across in Moldova. This is a dream come true for her – the exact kind of experience she wanted from her Peace Corps service.  She is pretty sure that she will be extending for a third year.

And, as I have said over and over again in this blog, everyone’s Peace Corps experience in unique.  Last summer there were four very smart, accomplished, and vibrant M26s who ET’d, much to our newbie perplexity.  We were just entering and they were bowing out – early – even though they all seemed happy and satisfied with the work they had accomplished during the previous year.

And now I believe I better understand why.

Patty, my “PC daughter” (she calls me “mama”) decided some time ago that she had reached the natural termination of her Peace Corps service.  Though it did not happen to coincide with her scheduled COS (Close of Service) date, she felt that she had done everything she had set forth to do in joining the Peace Corps and the time had come for her to move on.  So our one year anniversary celebration doubled as poignant farewell to a much beloved member of our little family. 100_2738

Patty stayed with me for her last four days in country and we spent a number of hours together reflecting on Peace Corps, its ups and downs, rewards and challenge, and, especially, the clarity it (sometimes unwelcomingly) forces upon you in relation to your own character and vulnerabilities.  As badly as a part of me wanted to equate my experience to hers, to remind her of the depression and hopelessness I had felt just a few short months before, of how many times I had contemplated ET’ing and how glad I was now that I hadn’t, I stopped myself.  I am not Patty’s mother.  We are Peace Corps Volunteers, together but different, each walking a very personal path.

For me, her recent departure has become an interesting exercise in self-awareness, revealing more layers of my former personae – the one that had accreted over 27 years of motherhood, flavored by elements of paternal influence that generate my propensity to take control –which I am still shedding here in Moldova.  Patty is just 5 weeks younger than Rhiannon, my only child.  They share many similarities – sparkling intelligence, a snarky wittiness,  big dreams, and a passion for travel coupled with a firm desire not to spend their youth caged in a cubicled-world – that drive them both to keep seeking that proverbial place of contentment, somewhere over the rainbow, of which they have yet to catch a glimpse.

One of the most liberating aspects of my Peace Corps journey has been the opportunity to form peer-relationships with people of my daughter’s generation, to be treated as just another friend, a fellow traveler on this journey, equal in most every way that counts here after all the roles and titles and social contexts of America have been left behind.  Patty is good at halting me in my tracks when I stray off into mother role – giving too much advice or reminding her not to forget her purse or nagging her to go to the doctor, for example.  Smart-ass comebacks that might sting coming from Rhiannon I receive like a refreshing splash of water to the face from her.  Perhaps not even realizing it, she has held a mirror up to me, allowing me to see with clarity many of the reflexive aspects of my personality that I know annoy my daughter to no end.  (Rhiannon, if you ever get to meet Patty, know that you owe her a soul debt.  I think I can be a better mother to an adult daughter because of her.)

***

And so the cycle spins, cleansing me of much of the gray water that I toted along from America and that threatened to engulf me through those long, empty winter months.  I have come full circle, weathering the spectrum of seasons, to arrive – finally – in a mental space where I could both greet the new trainees with confidence and joy and then, days later, accompany one of my very best friends on a 4am final journey to the airport and hold back tears as I said goodbye, knowing that the last American face she saw in Moldovan should be one of confidence and joy, also.

 I’ll miss you Patty. But I believe in the choice you’ve made for yourself.

We wave hello and then goodbye and hold tightly to each others’ hands along the way. 

Vara (Summertime and the living is busy…)

If you have noticed my absence lately (and I am flattered if you have), know that it is because it is now summer in Moldova and probably the busiest time of year for both Peace Corps Volunteers and their Moldovan counterparts.  School is out and vacations are being taken, true, but new Peace Corps trainees have arrived and Pre-service Training is in full swing, the M26s are COS’ing, cherries and peaches are being harvested, Turul Moldovei has launched (finally!), new projects are in the planning stages, and – of course – it is wedding season in Moldova.  Every day seems to be packed with meetings, appointments, places to go, things to buy, phone calls to make, and events to attend.  What a difference from the wintertime, when I was convinced I would never leave my room again!

Because there are three separate though interrelated topics I feel the need to expound upon, let me take it one by one (mostly because I don’t want to stretch your attention span by throwing them all into one meters-long posting.)   The three posts following this intro will flesh out the current events that are filling my days and keeping me sated to the brim with joy and excitement.  Feel free to read in small doses….

A Blazing Sun

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

Henry Miller from The Cosmological Eye

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

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

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

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

My anxiety about going home increased.

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

Femeia frumoasa
Femeia frumoasa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My BFFs
My BFFs

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

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

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