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.

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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……

Vorbiți limba engleza?

“Ask him why he is standing up for Holland,”

Adrie nudges me, curious about this large bear of a man, clad in a bright orange shirt and jersey shorts, who has been alternately sinking in his seat then leaping to his feet at the table in front of us, cheering in broken Romanian and what I think might be Gagauzian while emoting dramatically with meatloaf-sized hands and exaggerated facial expressions, for the last 3 hours.  Adrie, compact, a sprightly orange knitted cap sprouting atop his tousled silvery locks, barely grazes the chest hair that one knows must carpet this guy’s sternum. The other man is unusually tall, dark and swarthy for a Moldovan, lending credence to my vague supposition of Turkish heritage.

In spite of the disparity in height and stature, though, at this moment they are twinkling twins, their effusively replicating grins practically flying off their faces as they shake hands, high five, and hug impetuously after the deciding goal slammed into the Costa Rican net and mercifully put an end to the stomach churning suspense of the past half hour. It’s 2:15am, but we linger on the pockmarked street, loathe to loose the camaraderie that has culminated with this euphoric victory.

I dutifully pull together my Romanian translation of Adrie’s awkward English and test the waters:

”Vrea să știe de ce te iubesc atât de mult Olanda.”

The man is laughing maniacally before I even reach the end of my sentence. Screwing up his forehead with effort, he gazes intently into Henri’s upturned face and affirms their ebullient solidarity in sputtering bursts of loosely grammatic English:

“Me,” the man slaps his chest with fanned fingers. “I, me, is me for Germana.  Friend…”he stabs a sausage finger towards the second man who was at the same table all night, “He, he are, he is for Olanda.  Now we is, he, me, you are, we fight together!” He pounds his fist into each other with enough force to break knuckles, then laughs uproariously and claps Adrie, who only staggers slightly, on the back with unbridled glee.  Those in the know, I am coached later, understand that tonight’s win for the Netherlands will now pit them against Germany in the semi-finals the next day.

No need to translate.  The language of sports has again transcended national boundaries.

***

I can’t say that I have ever “got” professional sports and the thrall of fandom that accompanies it. Once, in the late 90’s during the height of the O’Neal-Kobe regency, I rallied myself to join my husband in cheering for the Lakers during their bid for the national championship just to feel what it was like to get so carried away by the movements of a ball through space.  One season was enough, though, and the next year I couldn’t summon the fortitude necessary to sit through interminable time outs, commercials, sportscaster commentary, and incessant camera panning of the courtside seats.  I kept getting up to wash the dishes, or fold the laundry, or recheck the smoke alarm batteries.  Clearly, I was no longer engaged.

Despite having forcibly witnessed the pervasive permeation of championship tournaments into every season back home, I was still a bit surprised to see an equal – well, perhaps even bigger – fervor take over Moldova with the advent of the 2014 FIFA World Cup games, beginning in June.  Wikipedia tells me that the World Cup is the most widely viewed and followed sporting event in the world, exceeding even the Olympic Games; that the cumulative audience of all matches of the 2006 tournament was estimated to be 26.29 billion, with an estimated 715 million people – almost a tenth of the entire population of the planet watching the final match.  This is definitely a bigger deal than the NBA pennant. In Chisinau, the downtown area adjacent to Stefan Cel Mare Park is roped off to corral an area the size of a football field, bookended by two 80-foot projection screens, and crammed with beer stalls, music stages, and picnic tables.  Since Brazil is halfway around the world many of the games are taking place in the small hours of the night; this has not deterred audience attendance in the slightest. Nevertheless, while it has been a hugely popular attraction for PC Volunteers, I have not been one of them.  In fact, I have had only a passing awareness of the competitors wins and losses as they are sporadically sandwiched into the bedlam of my fellow M27’s FB posts recording their emotional last days in Moldova.

So, I’m not really sure why I accepted an invitation from the three Dutch volunteers currently staying at my center to watch the game at a local restaurant last night at 11pm.   11pm?  Anyone who knows me can tell you that all my lights have been dimmed for at least two hours by that time.  Soccer game?  I may be the only suburban California mother who has never watched a game in its entirety.  (I generally did the grocery shopping while the rug rat carried out her requisite team sport sentence.)  But it’s Moldova. And I’m a Peace Corps Volunteer.  And I have come to feel a sense of obligatory hospitality when it comes to the visitors who pay a goodly sum to stay for days and sometimes weeks at a time on the property to volunteer with the beneficiaries, cleaning their bedrooms, cutting their hair, massaging their legs, clipping their toenails. These are damn good people.  I can watch a soccer match with them.

And what a surprise!  After a brief homage to the two teams’ national anthems, the game began, 11:06pm…wtf?  That never happened in a basketball game, from my admittedly limited experience.  And then – what???  They keep playing? For 45 minutes straight? No time outs? No commercial breaks?  No cheerleaders prancing pompoms or costumed mascots cavorting dumbly for the crowd?  I found myself inexplicably riveted by the little ball whipping at mach speed back and forth across the green.  By the second half I was tensed in my seat, yelling at Sneijder to kick the damn ball towards the goal rather than 50 meters backward.  (I can’t say I gleaned anything about game strategy during the first half, but it did feel good to yell.)  By the penalty phase, I was bobbing in and out of my seat along with the vociferously vocal men and one little boy in front of us and the two Scouts from Belgium to our left. And it was about then when our groups’ budding affection blossomed into a fervent, full blown love affair.  We were all strangers, caught together for a brief span of hours in a tiny neighborhood dive 20km from the capital of an eastern European country that most people have never heard of,  who happened to be standing up for Holland even though just three out of the nine of us called it home.  It was one of those surreal and lovely moments that underscore the very best of Peace Corps service.  I couldn’t imagine this happening in Irvine.

***

English.  A game played in Brazil between players from Costa Rica and Holland, viewed on a sheet tacked to the wall of a terrace outside a pizza parlor owned by a Moldovan, by three Belgians, one American, three Dutch, a Moldovan man and boy and a giant of dubious Turkish origins.  And it was the English that threaded it all together.

“Ask him why he is standing up for Holland,” Adrie says, not recognizing how truly ubiquitous spoken English is.  Even here in Moldova, a tiny land-locked, mostly ignored country clinging to Europe’s coattails while trying desperately to escape from Russia’s shadow, it is not unusual to find your server or the person selling you a movie ticket speaking to you in English.  In fact, probably a third of the Peace Corps Volunteers living here never achieve complete fluency in Romanian (I include myself among them,) largely because their partners prefer to converse with them in English.  Strangely, this has been one of the most humbling aspects of my service: I was born into a language that has made it possible for me to be understood almost any place in the world I go.  Having travelled to Morocco, Turkey, Austria, Italy, Germany, Hungary, and Slovakia in the past two years, I still haven’t  encountered a circumstance where English was not spoken by someone in my immediate vicinity.  Just out of curiosity this morning, I looked it up: according to a Slate article dated June 14, , FIFA recently ruled that all of the referees selected for this year’s tournament had to pass a test of written and spoken English in order to ensure that all five officials at a given match can communicate with each other.  Why English, you might think to ask?  (I did.) Why am I, yet again, the lottery winner at the chancy tables of life?  I know that colonialism and geographic hegemony and capitalism and access to printing presses and education have all played their parts; but it is also the immense popularity of English-language media which has fabricated a communication bridge to many more people than I would’ve ever thought possible. Ask any Moldovan how they learned their English, and the majority of them will reference films, music, and sports.  It is both scary and wonderful, simultaneously.

The language of sports is a shared culture of competitive rivalry underscored by the camaraderie of engaging within a common arena.  One can usually always find an entrance into a country or a neighborhood through the gates of the local sports field or around the big screen at the local pub.  People will be cheering and cursing and celebrating and jumping up and down while punching air. And I will never fail to be astounded, and grateful, when it is my beloved English that succeeds in concatenating it all.

Corpses, roses, red lipstick

The other day I was hurtling down the road to Chișinău in a rutiera being piloted in that take-no-prisoners manner typical of most public transportation in Moldova when the brakes were applied forcefully enough to obtain most passengers attention away from their smart phones and tablets (this visual will become more relevant in a moment) to seek the reason for our sudden loss in velocity.  Traffic is pretty much non-existent on the one-lane highways that thread across Moldova, mostly because passing the car in front of you seems to be de rigueur once you’re close enough to read the license plate.  (No matter if the car is doing 80, it must be passed because it is in front of you. You kind of wish they’d apply this same thinking to their education and economic policies.)

We slowed to a relative crawl for about five minutes before a crowd of people carrying balloons, flowers, and candles trailing a căruță provided the explanation: of course – a funeral! We edged our way slowly and respectfully round the procession and were afforded a nice view of the corpse, artfully framed by roses bunched atop yards of mounded tulle, lying in repose on the flatbed of the horse-drawn cart. The red lipstick was a nice touch, despite her obviously advanced years.  Go out in style, I say.

Once the plodding hearse reached the rear view mirror, a number of signs of the cross were proffered before  all heads bent in unison back to their respective screens.   Ah, Moldova!

***

The random juxtaposition of old and new still takes me by surprise, even after two years.  Living as I do so close to the capital and within the physical confines of a western-European designed and funded organization, I am less exposed to the old ways that remain tenaciously embedded in Moldovan village life.  When a beneficiary dies here at the center an ambulance (or at least the Moldovan version of an ambulance) comes to collect the body, transporting it, I assume, to some other location for the family to retrieve later. (Since many of our beneficiaries’ family members live outside of Moldova this could take some time.)

I do have many PCV friends, however, who have attended the departed through the various processes that deliver them to their final resting place, as well as the traditional observances that trail in their wake.

Here’s how it goes*:

  1. Collect expired family member from scene of expiration if this does not happen to be the home.  One incidence I heard about involved a brother and sister driving 2 ½ hours from their village into Chișinău to retrieve their father from the hospital where he died.  Dressing him in his nicest suit, they then loaded him into the back seat of their compact car, positioned upright as there was not enough space for him to recline, which now causes me to wonder how many back seat passengers I pass on the highway might be corpses heading home for burial.
  2. Place family member on table in prominent location in home.  Surround him or her with all available chairs.  Borrow some from the neighbors if possible.   People will be coming and going and staying and talking and sitting in silence and praying for hours and maybe even days.  There’s a lot to remember and honor and say.
  3. Make enough food to feed an army. Or at least all your family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, local government employees and school teachers, resident Peace Corps Volunteer, the neighborhood alimentara owner, rutiera driver, and any other important village contacts who will come to pay respects.  And don’t forget the house wine.  And cognac.
  4. Send someone for lumber to construct a casket.  Send someone else to dig a grave in your family plot in the village cemetery.
  5. Find a căruță if you don’t already have one. Transfer body to wagon bed. Surround with mounds of flowers. Collect people. Parade through the village, down the highway, uphill and down dale, to the final resting place.  Place body in casket, wrestle casket into hole.  Shovel dirt.
  6. On day three, nine and forty, and then on the one and seven year anniversary of the departed’s expiration, repeat step 3. (Without the body, of course.)  On the year anniversaries you must present a circular loaf of bread punctuated by a slender candle wrapped in a dish towel to all your visitors.
  7. And then, of course, every year there’s Paștile Blajilor, or “Memorial Easter” as it’s called by us English-speakers.  On this day, which is traditionally the Monday after the first Sunday following Easter, but usually encompasses that Sunday as well since most Moldovans have so many relatives piled up in the local cemeteries that one day won’t cover them all, families bring huge baskets of food to the cemetery and spend the day visiting, gossiping, and laughing, sharing their biscuiții and bomboane and perjole, most times while standing wedged between monuments and crucifixes and tombstones and knee-high wrought iron fences. Some families are perspicacious enough to crowd a permanent little picnic bench between graves so they have room to set out a nice spread.  Oh and let me pour you some house wine.  And a shot of cognac.

*My intention is not to poke fun at the Moldovan way of doing death. I am trying to convey the utter physicality of it, the deep involvement with the corpse, the practical elements that must be attended to by family and friends, the inability to delegate these tasks to “professionals,” whatever that term actually means besides just being somebody not connected to the dead person.

If you get the sense that Moldovans are much more involved with their dead than, say, your average Neptune Society-card carrying Californian or east coast Congregationalist, I dare say you’re on the right track.  I have not spotted a funeral home anywhere in this country.  Corpses are not yet an incorporated business here.  Moldovans deal with their dead.  They collect them and dress them and display them and transport them and dig the holes to deposit them in, and then continue to celebrate their life and influence and accomplishments long after the bodies have been placed in those graves.  They spend a goodly amount of time looking back, remembering, leafing through old albums, telling stories.  I guess it is a bit of a misnomer to call them “departed”, actually, as they seem to be hanging out in the penumbra of their family’s lives for decades past their expiration dates.

Recently, I spent a good couple of hours with the 86-year-old host-grandmother of one of my Peace Corps friends.  The second time she hobbled out with an old shoebox full of photos, I gracefully acquiesced and settled in for the ride.  We covered the story behind every frayed and yellowing picture, even those so faded I couldn’t make out a face.  When there were duplicates – and there were many – she remembered another aspect of the personality of the person/s portrayed to relate to me.  (Since most of her teeth were missing and she spoke a heavily-accented Moldovanești, I was only catching every third word anyway.  She might have been telling the same story over and over again.)

Lest you attribute this persistence to the age and senility of my raconteur, let me assure you that I have been the recipient of such serial tales from the mouths of much younger, spryer folk: Nina, my host sister in Stauceni, celebrated the year anniversary of her husband’s passing my first summer in Moldova (and it was a celebration; let me say that outside of Terms of Endearment’s Aurora Greenway and my own 93-year-old grandmother, I’ve never known a happier widow in my entire life.)  I was held sway for an entire evening by the story of their meeting, marriage, his war-record and drinking buddies, their children’s nativities, his long, slow decline from stomach cancer, and the details of his expiration, complete with photos and souvenir medals.  There may have been some house wine involved, too.  And this served up by a woman who didn’t much like her husband at all.

Once I was stopped in the training room by one of the social assistants here. She was weeping prodigiously and cradling the framed photograph of a handsome middle-aged man. She’s Ukrainian, so her Romanian is just barely better than mine, but I managed to parse out from the picture and towel-wrapped loaf of bread she pressed into my hands that this was the son whose car had been hit by a train five years ago.  (She missed him so much that she observed his anniversary every year, rather than keeping to the requisite one and seven.)  Despite the fact that I couldn’t understand most of what she said, she didn’t stint on his story.  It was very important that I appreciate what an amazing son, brother, and father he had been.  Her pain was so palpable that the tears were soon coursing down my face, too, and we ended the whole thing dissolved in each other’s embrace.

***

When my sister was killed in a head-on collision almost 30 years ago, a family friend identified her body at the morgue. Neither of my parents wanted to etch their memories with a stark, blue-lit close-up of her smashed-in skull or deflated ribcage.  We held a memorial service at some generic, non-sectarian chapel, where we placed a framed picture on an easel front and center depicting her mid-laugh, eyes bright, hair a spun-gold halo, turning toward the camera, alive, rather than a dead body.  Her friends took dutiful turns at the lectern at the front of the room, clutching sodden pieces of notebook paper and swabbing their faces with tissues. I don’t remember any member of our family talking; I think we were too stunned at that point, trying to assimilate the meaning of the sudden hole in our ranks. There was no body present; she was cremated and for some reason the remains were not ready in time for the event (how long does it take to burn a body? Is there a line? I picture a traffic jam of caskets, jostling for a lane…)

Later, I went with my dad to the crematorium to fetch her “ashes.”  I put that in quotes because it is a nice little linguistic notion we have about a  body that’s been burned – that all that remains is a neat, fluffy white pile of ashes. Not so.  Because, of course, cradling the box on my lap through the car ride home, I couldn’t stop myself.  I needed some notion of termination to take hold in me, a finale, in order to stop expecting her to pop around the corner and kid us about her creative April Fool’s gag. So, I opened it up.  Carefully wrapped inside a sanitizing layer of plastic, I found chunks of concrete, similar to what you might have after going at a sidewalk with a sledgehammer. With teeny bits of irregular turquoise and deep garnet pebbles mixed in.   And some silver (I surmised those were her fillings.)   I sifted it through my fingers, thinking, This is you. This is all that’s left of you, Lorraine. Chunks of bones and tiny gem-like pebbles.  It didn’t compute.  I couldn’t make the transition between the articulated limbs, the smell and feel of her, that cloud of hair and puffy upper lip, the dim constellation of pale freckles across her nose and cheeks, her perfectly arched nails and knobby knees, with this box of crumbled cement between my thighs.  If you don’t witness the burning, it’s hard to believe it really happened.

(Ironically, several years later our family benefited from a lawsuit filed against that crematorium. They were discovered to have indiscriminately mixed people’s remains during their processing, so the bones I was sifting through were not likely all, or even mostly, my sister’s.)

A couple of weeks after this, a group of us drove down to Laguna Beach with the box.  I vaguely remember my current boyfriend and the man who had identified her body squabbling about who was going to scatter the contents (in the end, I think they divided it up.)  I and my parents, brothers, assorted girlfriends and family friends watched from the cliffs above as they both paddled out on boogie boards, dodging surfers and swimmers, then stopped beyond the wave break, and proceeded to wave exuberantly.  We all waved back until one of my brothers pointed out that they weren’t actually waving, they were busy tossing Lorraine across the water.  No one said anything after that.  The wind was loud and there was a table of people enjoying Caeser salads and a bottle of chardonnay not three feet away.  It turns out that scattering dead people’s remains right off shore in California is not really legal.  No sense in drawing undue attention.

***

Most years I don’t recall my sister’s expiration date until some days or weeks after it’s passed.  I’m always gratified those years that I do remember, I don’t know why. I make a point of composing a little letter to her in my head, updating her on what’s been happening with me, how her neice is doing, the latest family travails.  For some reason I don’t feel right doing this if I’ve forgotten on the actual day of her death – like I’ve missed her birthday party or to attend her wedding or something. Since she was cremated, there exists no dedicated place to visit, to bring flowers or to say a prayer.  My mother and I have talked – at the 20 and 25 year anniversaries, I remember – of getting her friends together, looking up her old boyfriend, having a party. We still have yet to make that happen.

She is slipping silently away, becoming more ephemeral each passing year as I age and my ability to recall details fades.  She died before the age of cell phones and camcorders; there is no recording of her voice.   All of our videos are old school, silent and grainy like my memories, and the world they portray seems alien, with longer shadows and a clausterphobic feel. I wrote recently of losing a piece of her clothing that I had carted around with me for decades.  I liked having that shawl as it gave me a tangible connection to her – something that touched her could touch me still.  I fantasized that little flecks of her skin were still caught up in the threads.  (This might actually be kind of gross if I hadn’t broken down and washed it years ago.)

I know that my family did the best we could, given our circumstance and the cultural medium we were steeped in, at the time of my sister’s passing.  But I am aware of the movement growing within the States to bring the dead home, to wrest back responsibility for the passage of the corpse to its final resting place, be that fire or grave.  I have a friend who kept her husband’s body at home in the bed where he died for the three days that his Buddhist faith proscribed before calling the authorities to collect him.  It was a defiant act in a world chock full of rules and regulations around what should be, could be a far more intimate event.

I think the Moldovans have done well in blending progress with tradition in many areas. I fervently hope that I never see a funeral home built in this country.  I admire them for their resilience and stoicism melded with an authentic propensity for feeling their emotions, year after year after year.  The dead are not departed; they remain deeply embedded in the lives of those who remain.

***

It has been the ubiquity of social media, ironically, that has returned bits of Lorraine to me.  Her closest friends have friended me, and they still post pictures and anecdotes about her, stuff I’ve never seen or heard, that serve to refresh her presence and allow her to again have an influence upon my day.  I cry often. And laugh and smile and find myself caught up in an unexpected memory, a clear picture of how she was in a certain instance, on a certain day, and I fancy I can almost hear her voice whispering on the breeze.

That image sticks in my brain, I don’t know why: the busload of me and 19 Moldovans, inching by the wagon carrying the corpse with the bright-red mouth, framed in roses, trailed by a parade festooned with candles and balloons.  Everyone pausing, looking out the window, heads turning slowly.  Hands slowly tracing crosses from forehead, to shoulders, to heart.  Then the van speeding up and all heads bowing down, again, to little screens cradled on laps in front of them.

 

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.

 

The (Worldwide) Webs We Weave

This morning I viewed a video on Facebook that gave me pause, causing me to appreciate the interconnectedness of my world and the multi-layered, radiating webs of relations we all weave while plodding through our daily lives.  Posted by one of my sister’s best friends, it was an acoustic rendition of “Happy Birthday” plucked out on a guitar by a former band mate of one of my dearest high school pals, dedicated to a 50+ man with whom I attended Catholic school some 45 years ago.  What makes these connections so mind-bending is that my sister has been dead for almost 29 years; her friend was, for a brief spate of time after my sister’s passing, my sister-in-law; I haven’t seen my high school friend (in person – I’m not counting Skype) in over 15 years nor the man from Catholic school in 25 and they met and became friends independently, years after I attended school with the latter.  The band mate and my former sister-in-law lived together back in the 80’s after being introduced by my high school friend.  Oh, the miracle of Facebook, that I can continue to witness the progression of all these relationships wherein I once played a role from minor plot development to headlining.

Spider web 2

I bother to record this here because of what it brings to bear on my experience of life in Moldova as I creep towards the conclusion (19 weeks and 2 days until it could end – but more on that in a sec) of my Peace Corps service term.  It is only now that the threads of disparate relationships are beginning to intertwine, forming stronger links to exciting projects and leading me in the direction of new prospects for actually employing the skills and experience I gathered in twenty years of people management and human resources back in the States.  It feels like it has taken so long to become grounded and integrated here, but now that I am I can barely keep pace with the flow of opportunities coming my way.

I remember so clearly, back in training, instructors and second-year PCVs constantly reinforcing how important it would be to successful service to just get out and meet people, make connections, follow-up on introductions, be persistent and pesky and endlessly curious.   What Peace Corps does, really, is put you at the starting gate in a particular place in the developing world after giving you a pep talk that lasts ten weeks, then they open the gate, wave you on and turn back to prepare for the next person stepping up to the plate.

In many ways, you truly do have the opportunity, challenge, and risk of creating your own service experience.  Some people (actually only a relative few) hit the ground running, blessed with dynamic, English-speaking counterparts and skill sets that match the needs of their communities. Others find their way more hesitantly, having to negotiate language and cultural barriers, misdirected goals, inflated expectations or complete lack of interest.  Some of them begin agitating for change, seeking a different partner, or a site move; a limited few ET. Others retreat into themselves, running daily marathons, baking pies and cookies, blowing through Candy Crush and Pet Farm Sagas, and/or consuming all available episodes of House of Cards, Game of Thrones, Downton Abbey and Breaking Bad after reading every award-winning book of the past decade. (I may have trod that particular path myself for more months than I will care to admit….except, of course, for the marathon part.)

But, finally, you meet some people. Or someone you’ve known since arrival introduces you to someone they just met. Or a new group of volunteers arrives a year after you and stirs the pot, forging new relationships that ultimately connect you. I have recently begun working with an amazing young woman who, through two degrees of separation, ended up being introduced to me after connecting with my husband on a volunteer software development project.   After 19 months of feeling like all I do in Moldova is teach English, I am beginning to formulate connections that lead to ideas that infuse energy into projects that are infinitely more challenging and interesting than any I would have the opportunity to implement in the States.

Which is the main reason why I will not be leaving, after all, in 19 weeks and 2 days on July 8, the date I drew in the Close of Service lottery held three weekends ago.  Ironically, it’s the only lottery I’ve yet ‘won’ in my life; July 8th is the very first day that anyone from the M27 group can leave Moldova. It will be tough, waving goodbye to so many people who have met so much to me for 27 months. But I already have a plan for my final year.  It involves significantly more writing, so – hopefully – I will be present here again with more frequency, and a more substantial amount of work devoted to exciting projects that are only just now developing.

It is also involves opening myself up to new people and more varied, far-flung connections. During the protracted process of staging and Pre-Service training Peace Corps Volunteers tend to bond closely with the members of their incoming group, perhaps even more closely with the 10-20 PCVs in their same program.  I have formed friendships here that I know will last for the rest of my life.  These friendships have sustained and nurtured me through some difficult periods; I have laughed and cried, celebrated and whined, shared meals, beds, and crowded rutieras with these folks.  I am lucky to have served with them and they represent a significant portion of what has been good and meaningful in my service thus far.  They have been my safety net and, unfortunately in some respects, my cocoon.

Again, my Peace Corps experience is presenting me with another meta-lesson (change leads to insight far more often than insight leads to change.)  Even the biggest changes – like ditching one’s routine existence to travel halfway across the world to volunteer in a country one never even knew existed – can be quickly subsumed by the fortifications one immediately, seemingly unconsciously, begins erecting again to shield oneself from further change.  I have (re)created a nice life for myself here, complete with English-speaking friends, lots of books, meetings in restaurants, and weekend spa dates.

Now I am preparing myself for a different experience, one filled to a much greater extent with Moldovans. Even as I write this, I am breaking every hour or so to watch another segment of a YouTube video on Moldova.  And as I was watching, I suddenly realized that large portions of it were in Romanian, which I was following without a hitch.  I feel like I have finally crossed that barrier that separated me from so much that went on around me, everyday.  I understand the language, I get the nuances of culture, and I interact with folks on a daily basis who are happy and forward-thinking and excited to have me in their lives.  I barter for ingredients in the local piața to prepare traditional dishes like zeamă and borsch that I have come to crave.  (And I know where to find cilantro and curry in Chișinau when I must have Mexican or Indian some days.) And I continue to appreciate the convenience of public transportation and not having to pay attention to the road.  Despite living on a stipend that is a meager percentage of the salary I made at home, I feel increasingly richer and more secure every day.  The web I am weaving is becoming denser, more intricate, and speckled with sparkling multi-cultured circumstances all the time.

Bine ați venit Moldova!

Spider web 1

A Sliver of the Pie

I am recently returned from a much-needed and appreciated break from my Peace Corps life.  For my birthday, my mother splurged on tickets for a boutique river cruise down the Danube River. We sailed from Passau, Germany, into Budapest, stopping for port visits at Linz, Durnstein, and Vienna.  It was luxurious in every detail – from the gracious attentiveness of the ship’s crew to the sumptuous haute cuisine and 400-thread count bed linen, from the knowledgeable and humorous tour guides to the breathtaking scenery skimming by outside the window.  It was a little taste of heaven.

And yet.  (There’s always a caveat with me, isn’t there?)  One of my personal objectives in joining the Peace Corps was not just to journey to some foreign land, but to actually live there, to make a home there – to integrate into a daily routine so thoroughly that it would feel like sliding into a pair of worn-out slippers whenever I returned to it.  And I have achieved that; turning the key in the lock of my apartment at the end of my trip I caught myself thinking, “It’s good to be home again.”

And while this is gratifying to have experienced, it poses a whole new quandary for my nascent desire to keep wandering the world after my term in Moldova concludes.  For I was suddenly, oddly conscious while I trod the cobblestoned streets of Passau, craned my neck to take in the spire of St. Stephens, stopped in awe in front of a Rubens, or ordered schnitzel in Vienna, that I was a touring these sites, and as such was unable to access the true experience of being in these places, being of these places .  Traveling as a tourist is like skimming over the surface of a large body of water; oftentimes it feels as if the aim is to cover as much area as possible, rather than taking the time to stay still, immerse and dive deep.  I saw what Vienna looked like, what Salzburg had to offer, what comprised Budapest, respectively, for a scant 4-6 hours at best.  This is no way to catch the flavor of a place, a people, a culture, through such a miserly sip.

Robert Louis Stevenson once observed that there are no foreign lands: it is the traveler only who is foreign.   In Moldova, I have had the time to understand that.  Here, I have immersed, acclimated, no longer feel myself as ‘foreign’.  And I realize how much more that has added to my experience and comfort in the world.  I no longer look at a map and see the outlines of countries as delineations of strange, undecipherable exotica that could have no relation to me.   Instead, they represent convocations of communities, reverberating lives, little houses and neighborhoods, corner stores, and office buildings.  Cars drive down streets in those places. People do laundry and cook meals.  Dogs trot across dirt roads, stopping to scratch fleas.  Bicycles lean against buildings. Aromas waft across a breeze. Children laugh and hang from tree boughs.  Women gather and talk on corners. Life is happening in every corner of the world.  It is now conceivable to me that I could join in and participate fully, no matter where I found myself.

Quite by accident, I took a most interesting picture in Bratislava.  We stopped in the town square to admire a memorial built to commemorate the synagogue that had stood for hundreds of years in the town square, right next to the Protestant church, until the Nazis saw fit to blow it up.  Part of the memorial was the silhouette of the old synagogue etched into a sheet of smooth black marble. I didn’t realize until I was uploading my pictures at homeImage that the marble reflected back the shadowy outlines of people milling about the town square, with the etching of the synagogue super-imposed over all, only briefly and barely occluding the activities of people going about their days . It was a lovely visual metaphor, conveying not only that any church, synagogue, or temple is comprised of more than just a building, but also that when we travel all the icons, museums, memorials, parks, palaces, bridges, castles, and fortresses that may fascinate us and be the images we return with for our photo albums, they remain only a backdrop to lives still being lived in these historic places.  And the traveler is forever the foreign passerby, holding up a camera, skimming across the surface, dropping in to sample just a sliver of the pie.