What’s Next?

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

Another chapter to be written in the Book of Revelation.

The Road to Nowhere

I received an email from Peace Corps today. It kindly reminded me that, since there is but a scant six months separating me and my scheduled Close of Service (COS) date, the US Government will no longer be reimbursing me for any tutoring expenses I should choose to incur from this point on.   (The subtext being, of course: if you haven’t learned the language sufficiently by now we’re no longer subsidizing your lame efforts, loser.)  Now, I haven’t engaged a language tutor for some 9 or 10 months, not because I couldn’t have benefited from the tutelage but mostly because I was too lazy to search for a new one after I moved from my first site.  And now, seemingly, it’s too late.  I’m stuck with the primary grammar and intermediate vocabulary that I have cobbled together from 3 months of intense initial instruction followed up by 16 months of just living – using public transportation, making purchases, attending social gatherings, stepping on people’s feet and elbowing around them, trying to make friends and chase off hooligans, inquire as to the origin of the food I’m about to eat, and/or find my way back to familiar ground when I have inadvertently failed to follow rapidly communicated directions correctly.

And this is okay, I guess.   But it sparks the slow embers of a flaring realization: I am sliding inexorably towards an exit sign, leading to a vast, uncharted territory that I have not adequately planned, nor properly dressed for.  I am woefully unprepared for an appointment with my future.  Egads.

***

So, this is that time in most PCV’s service when our focus is suddenly jerked up – from our prospects, our projects, our parties, our partners, our preoccupation with all things toilet. We begin blinking our microscope eyes, searching for the plumb line of the horizon, flexing shoulders and toes, stretching, slowly, back into still life silhouettes, anticipating movement ahead.  Change is coming, certainly not tomorrow, but sooner than next year.  The train is still small, on its belly in the distance, smoke billowing faintly against a vague tree line; but the track is beginning to quiver, warning of its approach.

First, the days drag. They smother and weigh.  They mimic molasses and the last sticky drops of honey at the bottom of the jar. Then, they stretch and yawn, only to slump into stagnant heaps of furry formlessness for another gray sock of time.  It takes at least a year for them to muster strength, gain courage and gather some momentum, find an outline and draw a trajectory, to finally pop into a periodic semblance of productivity and purpose.  And so you have this idyllic six or seven, or even just four or five, months of actual, clear, and (hopefully) meaningful service before the powers that be jet you a reminder you that it will all be over sooner than you can fully plumb the depressing acknowledgement that you will never know Romanian better than you do now.  Party’s over folks.  Time to begin looking for your wallet and keys

***

So our group’s COS date selection is scheduled for February 2. I remember reading about this event when it happened for the M26’s last year.  Their blogs and Facebook pages were filled with it – how surprised they were, how fast it went, how unprepared they felt for leaving.  (Remember, this was when the molasses was still making its achingly slow passage across my calendar…..)   And now here I am, standing in the same corridor, facing the same blank doorway.  Oh my, how little we take away. (What is the use of all this incessant sharing anyway?  It has not an iota of impact on our individual decision making or planning processes.)

The plan is to meet, throw our desired dates into a hat, and hold our collective breath while the Country Director draws our fate, setting into stone the chronology of our individual departures – two or three days difference meaning the world to some.

Me?  I don’t really care.   I may, in fact, not be leaving this summer after all…

***

In my previous post I mentioned a quote.  “If you don’t know where you are going, then any road will take you there.”

I’ve been turning this over for days in my head.  At first, I read it as an admonishment against those who didn’t plan, a chastisement for blowing in the wind, having no direction or goal, no “personal vision” that guided their journey. But as this line of thinking simmered, I seasoned it with other spice blends of timeless wisdom stored in the keepsake box of memory: be here now; life is what happens when you’re busy making plans; change leads to insight far more often than insight leads to change; live the life you’re proud of or find the strength to start over again; make spontaneity a habit; life never stops but continues until it ends; become a connoisseur of your own mistakes; own yourself; it feels good to be lost in the right direction;…my mental stewing gained complexity, condensed and thickened… the aromas deepened.

During my time here, I have begun following a certain type of blogger – people who have made travel and ex-pat living a lifestyle.  They range in age from late 20’s to early 60’s; there are couples and single women.  There are people who have flexible jobs that allow them to work online and those that return stateside every 2-3 years to earn enough money to hit the road again.  Some of them could be deemed professionals, others are vagabond gypsies.  (One is a professional vagabond!)  They have various strategies for maintaining health and well-being, but the universal attribute they all seem to share is being ecstatically, blissfully, enchantingly happy.  They can’t get enough of their life.  I love to immerse myself in their experiences, to catch a whiff of the winds blowing them, to feel the world expand and embrace them, carry them along, going nowhere and everywhere.

***

I have spent the past couple of decades with a vague idea of a destination in my head. At some nebulous point I would reach a time when I would no longer be straight-jacketed by a job and then wonderful things would begin to happen: I would indulge my desire to write and travel and learn a new language and volunteer for a worthy cause.  I would eat better and meditate regularly. I would pare down my wardrobe and toss all my high-heeled shoes.  I would read a whole lot more.

But I had no idea how to get myself there other than stashing money in a retirement account and paying the mortgage every month.  Surely those activities would land me in the desired place, right?  It was during my late 40’s that I began to suspect that I was hoodwinking myself, that I had set my feet down a path in my 20’s that petered out on some dim horizon across a vast and arid desert.  Life was happening to me while I was scrabbling towards its end.

Joining the Peace Corps was, in part, an acknowledgement that I did not know, nor did I really care, where I was headed anymore.  I was tired of pretending that my daily activities were all coins placed in a piggy bank that I could break into someday to buy my reward.  When I lost the job, the safety net, the leash that kept me to the path, I fell.  Not just down to the ground, but through the ground; I was floating in undefined space.  There was not a road anymore, no signs pointing in any direction.  I was a ship unmoored, drifting from the harbor.  With nowhere to go, I could go anywhere.  Let the tide take me.

***

I appreciate being exactly this age, in my early 50’s, as a Peace Corps Volunteer.  Unlike those who joined after college, I am not using this experience to pad my resume, to gain legitimacy, to globally network or bolster my LinkedIn profile.  I am no longer hearing the thrum of a body clock ticking that those in their 30’s can’t shut out.  And yet, unlike (perhaps) those in their 70’s and 80’s, I still feel like I have a substantial chunk of time left to skip along to nowhere or anywhere or wherever this road I’m on might lead.  It feels good to not be planning on the future, to be fully present in what’s happening right here and now.

My past lifestyle rarely gave me the opportunity to make big changes.  I stayed in the same job, lived in the same neighborhood, patronized the same stores and restaurants, drove the same streets and freeways, and walked the same pathways with my dogs, for years and years and years.  And while this conferred an opportunity to nurture lifelong friendships, raise my daughter well, put a little money away, and grow my professional skills, it also deprived me of challenges and the courage to face them.  I began to harbor little yapping dogs of fear in my skull: “You’ll never have enough money to quit working,” “You’ll probably get cancer and die from all those year of smoking,” “By the time you retire, you’ll be too old and feeble to enjoy it,” yadda, yadda, yadda.   And while I certainly don’t knock those people who find fulfillment and reward and purpose on that particular path, it just wasn’t doing it for me anymore.  It hadn’t for a long, long time.

***

The long and short of it is that if my request for an extension is granted I am probably going to be spending another year in Moldova.  Right now I am not ready to leave this road going nowhere.  But the biggest surprise of all? I am indulging my desire to write and travel and learn a new language and volunteer for a worthy cause.  I am eating better and meditating regularly. I have pared down my wardrobe and tossed all my high-heeled shoes.  And I am reading a whole lot more.

And after that?  Perhaps next I will join those ranks of bloggers with ecstatic souls, whose feet are comfortable trodding any path, with or without signposts, or pavement, or destinations or direction.

There is so much left of life to live before it ends.

A Certain Slant of Light

There’s a certain slant of light,
On winter afternoons,
That oppresses, like the weight
Of cathedral tunes.

Despite being an English major, I was never adept at memorizing or effortlessly espousing appropriate verse at opportune moments to charm or impress a casual audience. Yet that one line remains embedded in my brain, surfacing at unexpected moments to perfectly contain the feeling that a certain slant of light so exquisitely conveys.

Unlike the inimitable Emily Dickenson, however, the poetic rapture that assails me is not confined to a particular season; today it surprised me during a mundane commute between Chișinău and my village as I sat wedged into a too-small seat (why am I so much larger than the average Moldovan?) listening to a genius mix of Toni Childs while balancing two bags on my origami-ed knees.

Had I not seen this same 20 km stretch of Moldovan countryside at least 30 times in the last two months?  Why – suddenly – did the view seem choreographed for pleasure, softly speckled with shoots of infant grass below waving wands of wheat?  Lake Ghidici – iridescent blue!  Glimpses of moldering concrete blocks and weather-worn factories, transformed into marbled reliefs.  Liquid gold melding fragile, newly sprung leaves into pulsing halos around the stark white trunks of birch trees. Rays of sun, frosting, plating,  caressing, everything in their path.  Sky, sky, sky – freckled with cottony adornments – spreading luxuriously over rolling hills of plowed, darkly fecund earth.

SPRING!  This is spring, I think.  Never before have I encountered her subtle, enchanting beauty, full force. Southern California, where I’ve lived most of my life, is a study in variations on a theme: sun, sun, wind, a sprinkle of drops, sun, sun, a few paltry clouds, sun, sun, fog, a pathetic mist.  Sun, sun, sun.  Always, boldly up above, overhead, in charge.  Never surreptitious.  Hardly ever slanting.

But this was a flirtatious light beckoning me.  A hint of warmth to come.  A feathering brush of shimmering paint, coating the landscape. Coy. Suggestive. Enticing.

And in that moment, revelation. I had made it, survived the cycle: Summer – stumbling trainee, dazzled with vertigo, wilting in the humidity and overwhelmed by the sheer unexpectedness of where I’d landed; Autumn – falling into routine, struggling with language and a new home, job, roommate, friends; Winter – the loss of all I had tentatively constructed, parsimonious sun begrudgingly meting out fewer and fewer hours of daylight, hibernation, confusion, doubt.

And now Spring.  A new beginning, at last, sure and clear.  Moldova, clothed in a gown of green and gold, had finally extended a warm welcome, basking in a certain slight of light.

Heavenly hurt it gives us;
We can find no scar,
But internal difference
Where the meanings are.

 

I give this to you as a great example of that certain slant of light in the countryside and a perfect four-minute container of what life is like in Moldova.  I have been to many of these places, met these same kinds of people, danced these dances, sang these songs.  Moldova is beginning to grow on me…

I’d like you to meet Patience, the humble virtue

Fair warning: Not entirely unlike my others, but certainly to a greater degree, this blog is entirely self-involved and navel-focused.  If you generally read my postings while half asleep, this one will put you there in no time.  If you’re in a really good mood, you should probably put off reading it for another day.  If your bored already, it just might do you in.  There are no beautiful pictures or entertaining anecdotes to amuse you.  How’s that for putting off any potential readers?  But  of course, I’d appreciate the audience anyways….

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You know how it is when someone (usually a parent or spouse or sibling) tells you something that you feel like you already know and you kind of nod your head and simper, trying to look attentive and appreciative, but inside you’re saying:

Got it covered. I’m capable!

Okay, come on now, we both know I’ve been alive for more than two decades, for pete’s sake!

I know this already. I know this already. I know this already.

Really?  Do you imagine I’m that stupid?

I grew the ef’’n turnips this bloody truck is sending to market, give me a break!

or some other such permutation of narcissistic arrogance?  Such is the case with most of us potential PCVs who scan the provided literature, nod our heads sagely, and then proceed to jump up and down with enthusiasm and glee before eagerly putting pen to the dotted line.  Of course there will be frustrations and the need to adapt and periods of ambiguity and challenge, but it is all part and parcel of the grand adventure and the mind-altering journey and the uplifting opportunity to be of service and the blessing of subsuming humbly to a greater good….of course I can handle it!  I am Ghandi and Mother Theresa and Martin Luther King and Albert Schweitzer and Sargent Shriver all bundled up in one tidy little package, ready to be shipped overseas!

Yeah.  Let’s talk about that.

See, this the thing that I’ve come to believe about us Peace Corps Volunteers.  If you look real close, I bet you might find many of us (not all mind you, one can never generalize to that extent) to be hyper-inflated, self-engrossed, experience-greedy, over-achievers masquerading as retro-liberal, greater-good-minded, altruistic missionaries spreading peace and friendship. The Peace Corps is a relatively difficult organization to join, given the lack of motivational pay and impoverished living conditions that must be endured.  The big prize you get is the untarnished badge of courage. You immediately and effortlessly earn the gaping admiration of all of those back home who sing a chorus of wonder at your bravery and selflessness.  How can you do it, they ask? Leave friends and family and the comforts of home to strike out for the great (unwashed) unknown?  What a saintly soul you harbor in your humble breast!

And soon, you imagine, you will be in the position to gratify their approbation by sharing swashbuckling tales of humanitarian magnitude: how you single-handedly  assisted the overworked midwife delivering  a baby in the fly-specked hut; constructed stout sewers to port away disease-mongering  filth; funded innovative treatment plants to make the village water safe; plaited purses from gum wrappers to help domestic violence victims achieve economic independence; built schools out of mud and straw to educate the next generation and hospitals to treat the discarded and greenhouses to feed the hungry and windmills to power it all, and oh, by the way, taught English to would-be social entrepreneurs in your spare time, all the while knowing you were icing your resume and weaving a global network of potential partners and acquiring powerful contacts in embassies and international NGOs to assist your ultimate goal to travel the world and live in exotic locations on someone else’s dime.

Except when you can’t.  Because you haven’t done anything to merit even the smallest bragging rights that you assumed as your entitlement once you debarked the plane.

Ok, I probably sound cynical.  But you’d be surprised.  Or maybe you wouldn’t   Maybe it’s an unaccountable naivete that has heretofore blinded me to the self-aggrandizing ends that serve to motivate some of the best work done in this world.  Poftim.

Something inside me has always impelled me to achieve, at times without a larger purpose or vision, but always to prove that whatever I undertook I could accomplish well.  I don’t know if it was the oldest child syndrome, or a sublimated competitive drive that didn’t get expressed through sports, or just a preference for directed action as an occluding buffer against the persistent whispering of samsara, but I’ve prided myself on my ability to perform above average in most professional and educational circumstances, thereby cementing my sense of self-worth and bolstering other’s opinion of me. (Of course, I didn’t go to Harvard or work for Apple, so my means of testing myself were pretty confined.)  I didn’t expect to be seven months into this endeavor with not a damn thing to show for the time but a remedial ability to speak a provincial language and a healthy case of psoriasis. Here I am, an unremarkable thumbnail (in the immortal words of Sue!) on the Peace Corps’ global screen of achievements. There are many, many other (most, much younger, I might add) PCVs who are succeeding in ways that I’m not even close to touching at this point.  My resume looks pretty bland and the address book painfully thin.

At the end of December, my partner left her position with the organization where I was placed in August after my Pre-Service Training.  Because Peace Corps assigns volunteers to a partnership rather than an organization and because, for a variety of reasons, there was no alternate partner for me there, I had to leave, tail between my legs, along with her.   The time preceding this ignominious, inconclusive end had been fraught with frustration and inaction. Our hands were tied on so many levels that we faced the impending train wreck like helpless maidens forsaken on the rails by a faceless agent of doom.  Fortunately, I had a two week vacation scheduled just about that time which provided a needed (and very pleasurable) measure of distraction, but since the second week of January I have been sitting in my room, trying not to dwell on my ineffectiveness by watching movies, reading books, snacking more than I should, and avoiding YouTube videos that could be teaching me how to knit.  (This last activity just seemed to be too sad, launching me into full-fledged spinsterhood WAY before my time.)

The experienced PCV will tell you that winter is a period of hibernation in Moldova: from the beginning of December through mid-January, there are a steady series of holidays that mandate a great deal of eating, drinking, and dancing, but after that most Moldovans hunker down to wait out the cold and the snow. In contrast to your typical Americans, who greet the New Year with to-do lists, grandiose resolutions, new cookbooks and expensive gym memberships, Moldovans seem to accept Mother Nature’s cyclical guidelines and slow down their activity levels during these frigid months.  Hence, it is not the best time of year to go foraging for a new partner.

I have received much good advice from those who have been here a year or two longer than me.  “Slow down, take it easy, appreciate this time of reflection.  Let go of the compulsion to be so American, the need to do, do, do.  Learn to follow gracefully the seasons’ lead and relinquish frenetic energy to these meditative months of withdrawal and inactivity.  And this is very good advice.  (Remember that head nodding and simpering?)  Advice that I imagine will be much easier to apply once I have another year under my belt and can reflect back on a spring, summer, and fall replete with a small successes, challenges overcome, and the fruits of my labors gleaming, plump and robust, in the storehouse of memory.

I find that I am not productively managing the acres of empty hours stretching before me.  While part of the incentive for joining the Peace Corps, believe it or not, was the thought of those empty acres that could be cultivated with writing and journaling and blogging and researching publishing avenues for the next generation Eat, Pray Love that I intended to compose during my time here, the tillage period has proved to be never ending and the seeds of experience are slipping through my fingers like sand.  I can’t grasp onto anything tangible to prove my mettle or worth, have produced nothing remarkable or noteworthy, haven’t had an iota of lasting impact, and the friends that I made have scattered in the aftermath of the events that blasted me from my site.

Perhaps it is more that I feel guilty.  As if, like the proverbial grasshopper versus the industrious ant, I have somehow neglected to provide for my own nourishment during these lean times.  I am restless and unsettled and have a perennial churning in my gut.  The future is uncertain and the recent past a wobbly structure not capable of supporting my current anxieties.  Like those fraught filled moments when you teeter at the apex of the roller coaster before heading down, I realize that I put myself on this ride but at this very moment I can’t quite recall why I imagined it would be fun.

This experience is altering me in ways I didn’t consider but probably need.  While I am not one to steer my ship by someone else’s stars, I realize now that, after I have plotted my course of action, I typically seek the comfort of external validation before proceeding .   This time, for the first time – at 51 years old, no less – I find myself on my own and surprisingly lost at sea.  I joined the Peace Corps, received my standing ovation, and now the lights have dimmed and the audience departed and am left in an echoing auditorium to contemplate how minor role my role in this drama could turn out to be.

No one else, not even another PCV, can comprehend my extant situation clearly or advise me on the best course of action or whether action is even possible or necessary. All further lines and plot developments are shrouded in mystery, author unknown as of now.  We come into service by ourselves (excluding the married couples) and will need to make decisions and move forward – or sideways or backwards or downwards or not at all – on our own.  So this characteristic of mine to think about a problem from every angle, but then perform back up analysis through another’s viewpoint in order to most thoroughly anticipate and manage possible  repercussions and outcomes, is completely thwarted here. Plus, I am not able to assuage my need for confirmation of my decisions by others who can be counted on for support and hoorahs.

Seemingly out of the blue, though (but perhaps not,) in response to an incoherent whine about my befuddled mindscape, my brilliant pen pal offered me a bit of sage commentary (completely circumventing my argument above that no one can offer me relevant advice):

Maybe you can’t know ahead of time about any of it. Maybe the best thing can’t be figured out by you with what you know. Sometimes something brilliant comes along that we couldn’t have figured out ourselves, and in fact we might have shunned as a lesser choice. And it turns out that the universe, or whoever, knows more than we do. Are you able to let go, relax, and just see what happens? 

I find myself mired in circumstances that I don’t have much control over, but maybe that’s the point: these are circumstances I don’t have much control over.  I am not able to consume myself with planning and strategizing and plotting and thinking and being brilliantly proactive in anticipating every nuanced outcome, then parading my analysis before my peers for applause and approbation.  At this point all I can pretty much do is throw my hands up in the air and yield to the organ-unfurling plunge.  Hopefully, the ride will turn out to be as amazingly mind-blowing as I once was so certain it would be.  Meanwhile, my mental furniture is being forcibly rearranged and refurbished by concepts that I would never imagined entertaining previously.  Like age and experience doesn’t always equate to an advantage in any given circumstance.  Or that logic and reason can effectively inoculate one against unexpected fall outs.  That the virtue that develops from patience is not one of one of spiritual calmness enveloping frustrations in a soothing blankness and calming worries to sleep, but the protective, hide-like callous born of constant friction, irritation, and sometimes pain that allows you to endure without seeking surcease from the torture.

So the one blessed thing for me right now, I’ve suddenly realized, is that I have created this megaphone to scream through when I need to, this outlet for stultified activity, this navel-gazing blog – my somewhat ironic tribute to the third goal of Peace Corps: Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans by complaining.  And through that process I have received so much unexpected support, encouragement, empathy, and love from people back home that I feel like I have a virtual bridge I can walk across online anytime to seek out a hug when needed.  I am so blessed.  Not by what I’ve done, but by what I’ve received.

And maybe the Peace Corps experience, in the end, will prove to be an exercise in developing and formulating better Americans, both those that go and those who witness and encourage them – despite all the setbacks and disappointments and early terminations and unrealized expectations and unattained goals – from home.  Maybe it’s good to know and to experience the fact that we – dare I call us a land of hyper-inflated, self-engrossed, materially-driven, over achievers masquerading as the world’s superhero? – cannot and therefore should not attempt to make over other countries and peoples in our own rather distorted image.  Maybe this journey is about humility after all, about NOT succeeding, about being at the mercy of forces outside of our control and still doing one’s humble best to influence them for the better and smile during the process.  Perhaps I need to take a back seat and just shut up and enjoy the ride.

I certainly hope that I am providing some measure of insight into this journey to others whose bravery and courage is not set on a global stage, but is attained through less visible but no less remarkable endeavors closer to home.  My own process of self-discovery is revealing how thoroughly and completely American I am, through and through. And that is neither a wholly positive nor irretrievably negative attribute.  But it does color what I choose to attend to, the depth and volume of that attention, and what effect it may have on its object. With half my life already lived I realize that there are aspects of myself that I have never met – unexamined expectations, assumptions, limitations, and aspirations that might be better served with a dose of patience.  Teach me, Moldova.  I think I’m finally ready to let you drive.

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PS: And to all of you prospective volunteers out there reading this blog in hopes of getting an edge on what the future holds, let me just reiterate what you’ve already been told and probably passed over blithely a hundred times already (and will not absorb any better this time either, because you just can’t.) You won’t know what it’s like until you do it and you can’t prepare for it ahead of time because no one can describe the exact circumstances that are even now conspiring to thwart your thralldom to Peace Corps and undermine your determination to be THE best volunteer ever who never complains or sees anything but the positive and describes her 27 months of service as the nexus of all that she aspired to be and learn in this world during the press interview for her surprise, runaway bestseller.  But do it anyway.  And bookmark this posting, because after you have confronted and endured your own thousand foot drop I’d love to hear how scary/mind-altering/exhilarating/humbling/educational the ride proved to be.  Let’s compare notes and celebrate surviving the Peace Corps roller coaster!

 

Mirroring Moldova

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The crumbling, hazardous steps leading to a public square

Does Moldova make you sadder?  Does just being here cause one’s happiness index to plummet beyond rescue?  Bruce Hood would answer in the affirmative.  I am listening to his book The Self Illusion as I walk to and from work each day and it is giving me a somewhat undesirable perspective on how I may be chipping away at what I had previously thought to be my natural state of joy.

In line with Hume’s “bundle theory,” Hood states that decades of neurological research lends proof to the theory that the “me” inside my head is an ongoing,  illusory narrative concocted by the brain to establish a necessary focal point for the reception and organization of stimuli into coherent patterns for reciprocal behavior.  He describes an elegant metaphor of the “self” as the external mirroring of one’s cumulative inner experience of the world and the other “selves” we encounter, giving an oddly somatic testimony to the notion that ‘we are all one.’  To the degree that we have an impact on the people who are in direct relationship with us, or who benefit from our work, or buy our products, or listen to our songs, or live in our buildings, or abide by our laws, or respond to our ads, or slip on our tossed banana peel – etc., etc., etc., – then we are affecting and thereby shaping the formulation of other “selves” in our world, contributing to the reflection that we receive from them that thereby shapes us in turn.  Whew.  (Of course, reading the book will give you a much deeper appreciation of his argument.)

“The line between out there and in here is not as sharply defined as we think.”                                                Eric Weiner in The Geography of Bliss

 So what does this have to do with me and Moldova?  Well, here’s the thing.  A Dutch professor named Ruut Veenhoven , along with his colleagues at the World Database of Happiness (WDH,) has been collecting data for years on what makes us happy, what does not, and – interestingly – which nations are the happiest.  Not surprisingly, Moldova consistently scores near the very bottom of the index.  Lower, even, then some African countries that definitely have a lot more reasons to bitch.

The effects of decades of harsh winters
The effects of decades of harsh winters

In the Geography of Bliss, a book about his travels through some of the happiest countries in the WDH and one – Moldova – that decidedly is not, Weiner proffers a theory that Moldovans are more unhappy because they are in Europe’s backyard and inevitably compare themselves with countries like France, Italy, and Germany, where so many of their working adults flee to make money.  However, there is also the on-going legacy of the Soviet system, which has warped the very fabric of the nation.  And there is also the physicality of Moldova – the crumbling building, the frost eroded concrete, the rusting pipes, the ubiquitous trash.  There are very few public places that please the eye or gratify one’s craving to find order and harmony in one’s surroundings.

A typical apartment building
A typical apartment building

The chapter on Moldova was quite revelatory in its illustrative vignettes which capture those elusive experiences I have found so difficult to articulate.  Here, for example, is a brief exchange between Weiner and a hotel clerk which highlights the impenetrable, obstinate ennui that seems to have a stranglehold on the population:

I return to the hotel. My Semi-Luxe room is hot, very hot.   I call down to the front desk.

“Where is the air-conditioning?”

“Oh, no sir, there is no air-conditioning in the Semi-Luxe room. Only in the Luxe room.”

“Well, can I upgrade to a Luxe room?”

“No sir, that is not possible.”

“Can I get a fan?”

“No sir, that is not possible. But you are free to bring your own.”

Graffiti transcends borders
Graffiti transcends borders

Weiner even visits a group of Peace Corps volunteers, for whom he feels nothing but pity.  After all, as he astutely notes, “We can’t very well call it the US Bliss Corps, but that’s what it is: an attempt to remake the world in our own happy image.”  And indeed, this is one of the hardest things for me to accommodate to here. My own happiness sparkles a bit before fizzling out in the face of such pervasive doom and gloom.  It is difficult to find something – anything – that Moldovans are happy about and you can’t really blame them.  When you live in a country corrupted by nepotism, cronyism, and graft; where medical and legal degrees are purchased outright and passing grades are conferred on children of influential parents even when they don’t attend school; where prescriptions are purchased by those who have enough money to bid for a medical appointment in the first place; where only a portion of the international aid flowing in is doled out by the few who have established themselves as trustworthy merely because they speak English; when you live in a country that is a country in name only, but does not appear to generate a cohesive culture that binds people into a group identity that supersedes narrow-minded, short-term pursuits in favor of broad-based, mutually-beneficial reciprocity, you lose. Period.

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A public bench

For about the last month, it has become increasingly apparent to my partner that our center is in serious danger of losing its operational revenue after December 31. For reasons I won’t get into here, we have not been successful at finding new sources of funding.  My partner has been coming into my office the past few days and sitting in the chair opposite me, her eyes dull and ringed in dark circles, shoulders sagging, hands nervously fidgeting about her face and hair.

“Ce facem, Yvette?”  What do we do?

I don’t know.  I don’t know. “Nu știu.”

I am not the lucky talisman I was at the beginning.  Bit by bit, I feel myself succumbing to the demoralizing ennui.  I don’t know how to battle the forces that so relentlessly pound people down here. Of course, as an American and as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I keep taking this failure personally.  Why can’t I figure it out? Where is the magic formula that will make this tangled web of lunacy unravel into a logical thread of hope? Why can’t my relentless American optimism overcome this amorphous miasma of despair?  I hear myself telling her that she pursue her dream of moving to the United States – escape this country, find a better life for herself and her husband and kids.

And then I stop myself, horrified – what am I saying?  My country’s better than your country? How un-PC am I?

Pedestrians waiting to cross the street
Pedestrians waiting to cross the street

I think I’m ceding to the notion that the line between the outside and the inside is not as sharply defined as we like to think.  Although the metaphor of the stalwart individual shaking her fist at the world and turning the tides of fate may be heroic, it does not make room for the millions of people who want to live ordinary, peaceful, predictable, and – yes – mundane lives.  Not everyone yearns to be Joan of Ark.

Many western nations naively believe that by “liberating” people and then handing them a toolkit for democracy, we guarantee them future success and happiness. But it’s not that simple.  Democracy is predicated on the basis of people trusting in one another, on a shared culture that instills faith in process and creates points of entry into those processes for everyone. Moldovans, 20 years after leaving the Soviet Union, do not have that.  At one point in their conversation, Ruut Veenhoven observes to Eric Weiner, “The quality of society is more important than your place in that society.” The truth of those words rings clearer to me each and every day that I live here in Moldova.

Daily exchange rates advertised everywhere - what a grim reminder...
Daily exchange rates advertised everywhere – what a grim reminder…

I am trying, as best as possible, in all my interactions, to mirror back the innate optimism and belief in democratic process that being a product of American culture has instilled in me.  And I have met so many, many Moldovans who want to believe, who yearn for change.  But it certainly doesn’t help that many of the best of them are sucked out of the country by the promise of an easier life elsewhere. The changes that need to occur are not going to happen in one person’s lifetime.  They must be willing to fight for a legacy that will only be realized by their children, or their children’s children, or their grandchildren’s children.

And how many of us Americans have shown the willingness to do that nowadays?

Meanwhile, happiness comes in small doses, in conversations around the table with Nina, in watching the women work so lovingly with the kids at my center, in sharing a meal with new friends, in solo walks around the lake behind my house.  And, I must confess, in getting together with other PCVs, whose vibrant American souls continue to recharge my battery and create new energetic input to my “self.”

The point of hope...
The point of hope…

I appreciate my fellow citizens, body and soul, like never before.

Bless you, America and all you Peace Corps Volunteers here in Moldova…be the change you wish to see in the world!

*All photographs are courtesy of fellow PCV Britt Hill – no relation, though I would be happy to claim her.  She has a much better eye for detail than I do so I shamelessly stole them from her FB site.

Thanks Britt!!!

ET (Going Home)

Picnic in Cricova with Roberto, Patty, Elsa, Carl, and Jenn

No, I will not be announcing here that extraterrestrials have set up camp in my dulap de heine in Stauceni. Nor have I been transported to another world by way of Moldova’s unconventional transportation system. In Peace Corps lingo “ET” stands for ‘early termination,’ which means that a PCV’s service ends – for whatever reason – prior to the standard 27 month commitment we all make. In the last week, three COD PCVs from the M26 group voluntarily ET’d for personal reasons. It happens so quickly that it takes your breath away and has left the collective mouth of our little group of temporarily reunited COD M27s slightly agape.

It is not my intention to name names or describe the specifics of these three PCVs’ circumstances. I was fortunate to have spent extended time with two of them and all three were significantly involved with the M27s as trainers and mentors. Through accidental circumstance, I had the opportunity to talk with all three as they were contemplating their respective decisions; I witnessed the intense, drawn out deliberation in which they each, in their own way, engaged. It was definitely not an impulsive or reactive move for any of them. However, most of the other volunteers in my group did not get that window into their motives and were left shocked and awed when their departure was announced by our program director at the start of a training the other day.

In some ways, I don’t know if it has made it harder for me to have talked with them about what they were thinking and feeling prior to deciding to throw in the towel. They all had very legitimate, substantial issues that fed their ultimate conclusions. Two of them had significant others that were waiting patiently for them at home. One of them had chronic health issues that had plagued her throughout her entire service; one had recently developed a puzzling problem with her heart. One had gone without water in her village for almost three months during the height of the summer heat. (She had to buy water to wash her dishes – needless to say she was NOT getting regular bucket baths or hair washings.) There were issues with partners not participating in partnership, organizations that had drifted without purpose, communities that were disengaged or insular and unwelcoming.

Romy and Lindsey – Warren in back

But despite this, these women (they were all female) kept trying. For 15 months they gave it their all. They greeted the M27s with enthusiasm and verve. They put their best foot forward every time they saw us, not wanting to mar our experience or influence our perception of what Peace Corps service can be. They were so successful at accomplishing this that many of the M27s were left a bit bruised by their sudden disappearance from our lives: how could they have fooled us so completely? How did we not see it coming? If it could happen to them, the tenure of anyone of us becomes a legitimate question mark for the future.

The Peace Corps is surprisingly, almost cathartically efficient, with early terminations. Once you announce your intention to quit, you are sent packing within three days. There is little time to say goodbye, to have “closure” with people, to tie up all the loose ends you will be leaving behind. Perhaps they are smart to do it this way. Once you realize that “ETing” is possible, it is suddenly a presence in your day to day life, looming off your shoulder like some doppelganger Grim Reaper, threatening to undermine your determination and snatch you out of the small circle of routines that you have managed to draw around yourself which sustain the illusion of purposeful, progressive action.

Coming together again for PST III has dealt an unplanned, somewhat unwelcome, blow to the burgeoning stoicism of many of us. We were just beginning to tread a groove, incorporating the small tricks of successful integration – greeting the vendors at the piața, learning the names of the children in our apartment block, familiarizing ourselves with the drivers of our local matrushkas, preparing American meals for our host families, recognizing the intonations of our coworkers’ speech patterns. Then – bang – we’re suddenly back at the beginning again, returned to the families and locals where we first landed as naifs in Moldova, faced with the discomfort of knowing we’re not the same people anymore, that time moves on without us, seasons change, relationships stretch and sometimes sour, and even those that remain are tinged with bittersweet. This is transitory. And now three seemingly permanent fixtures of our experience here have evaporated overnight. Nothing can be counted on, really.

Tamara (Moldovan neighbor) and Patty with puppy

One thing I am coming to understand is that – despite over 200,000 people having served in the Peace Corps to date – there is no standard “Peace Corps experience.”  Even within the environs of a tiny village, two volunteers will have two very different experiences, comprised of a unique amalgam of program, host family make-up, counterpart investment, health issues, relationship and family circumstances back in the States, purpose in being here, age, emotional proclivities…I could go on and on.  There is no way to pick out the qualities of a “successful” volunteer or predict who will make it through 27 months of service and who will decide to leave prematurely.

It used to drive us crazy when we would ask our mentors for specific advice during PST for integrating successfully or making it through the winters or motivating our partners or learning the language or adapting to the different foods, or coping with the lack of adequate sanitation and the inevitable response was ALWAYS prefaced by “It depends….”  Everything depends here.

Georgie and Romy

One of the ET’ing PCVs sent all of the M27s an email just before she departed from the Peace Corps offices to board her plane back home.  It was very long and heartfelt; one sentiment stood out for me:

“You each will likely face challenges and moments when you want to scream, laugh, cry, dance, give up, sing, and push like you’ve never pushed before. When you feel those emotions, follow them. The most important part about my Peace Corps experience was getting to know myself better and learning my limits, despite how well I thought I already knew them. I encourage you all to be open to all the adventures you will face and not to be discouraged by anyone else’s Peace Corps experience, including my own. At the same time, knowing yourself is also knowing when it’s time to walk away so if and when you ever feel like you’re time as a volunteer is done, I encourage you to see past the guilt and appreciate your experience for what it was.

I had never contemplated, before now, the idea that my service could be successful if I did not make it the entire two years.  That is part of the challenge that I posed for myself in joining.  And I still fully intend to see it through.  But it is unnerving to realize that very strong, dedicated, and capable people have chosen otherwise.  Many of them, in fact – the statistics are about 30% of any given group does not make it to the end of service.  I had read this before I came to Moldova, but I didn’t understand the full impact of what it meant when you actually know the people leaving and understand their reasons, when you can feel their reasons beginning to take hold within your very bones some days.

Peace Corps service is hard, but it’s hard for each person for a different reason.  So while we serve together, we are also alone on our own separate journeys, testing our own limits, stretching to surmount our own barriers, defining our successes in a very personal way.  Somewhat like running a marathon with a team, each person’s ability to go the distance is his or hers alone.  I cannot lend strength, or fortitude, or persistence, or happiness, or the ability to ignore a crushing pain to someone else, no matter how hard I wish for them to succeed.

So being together again in Stauceni and knowing that these one or more of these eight people that have shared this absolutely unforgettable and unrepeatable experience with me may not be here next year is a sobering reality check.  And they may be looking at me and wondering the same thing.

Me and Elsa

The Big City

Famous portal entering into Chisinau

Time has sped by the last 10 days…with PST over and all my M27 friends departed to site, I thought I was going to have an easy, quiet time in the TDY apartment in Chișinău while I received daily treatment for my knee.  Not so.  It was probably the most busy (and entertained) that I have been since arriving in Moldova.

Let’s begin with the diva knee.  So, I am sent to this NICE apartment right next door to the Peace Corps office with all my bags (suddenly I have even more stuff than I came to Moldova with) after the swearing in ceremony.  There are three bedrooms there, all empty, and a great big kitchen with a microwave, even.  So I’m excited.  I trot off to the market and buy some groceries and cook my very first meal since leaving home.  Then I spend some time reading and I take a bath and I make up a bed and settle in and soon am fast asleep.  RRIIIIINNGGGGG….ring…it’s the telephone.  9:30pm the PC doctor is calling, not to check up on me but to announce the impending arrival of another volunteer.  (I guess she didn’t want me to freak out when the front door opened.)

Well, this volunteer’s arrival marked the start of the week of the revolving door.  In seven days there were eight other people in and out of the apartment for various reasons.  They all stayed for at least a day or two and somewhere in there I heard every single one of their stories, all of which fleshed out for me a more complete picture of Peace Corps Moldova.  It’s complicated.  Just like most other things in life, I guess.  It made me appreciate how unique each person’s service ends up being: even though we‘re all in the same country, we are not having the experience.  Which means that it is impossible to judge anyone else’s outcome or decisions – whether they ET (early terminate) or extend for an extra year or do their proscribed two years and flee back home.  There are a million different reasons for walking many different roads here.  I suppose that’s true of all the PCVs around the world.  But here is a video of my new friends Maria and Katie playing on the teeter totter outside our apartment:

This is the one of the main reasons PCVs say that they love their experience.   We know how to make fun happen with whatever comes along…

My other new friend Maria – in traditional Moldveneasca costume!

Back to the knee: every day I would walk over to PC offices and my own driver would whisk me off to a state-of-the-art medical center (called MedPark – looks exactly like Kaiser in the US) where a lovely aide would spend half an hour giving me various treatments involving magnets, electricity , and sonar.  Another volunteer was getting the same treatments, so we had a chance to chat everyday for an hour or two as we rode there and back and underwent our treatments.  She related a lot of useful info about her year’s worth of time here and she was very funny and entertaining.  My knee felt better and better every day. Life was lovely. (Then I screwed up my knee again my first day at site – more on that experience later…)

I was also invited by a group of the M26s for an evening at an American couple’s house in the outer limits of Chisinau.  He works as an IT specialist for the American Embassy and his wife loves to cook but has no one to eat it all.  So every Thursday they host a buffet meal in a varying theme for any American ex-pat who wants to attend.  The best part of all was their pets – a BIG Sharr Mountain Shepard (never heard of it before that night) and a cat that both craved attention.  And all of us animal-starved people were ready to slather it on.  I felt like I had received a mental health intervention just petting and cooing at them.  Man, I miss my dog.

On my last day in Chișinău my lovely friends Elsa and Carl, who are stationed in the city, took Darnell and I out for a day long excursion through the parks and museums and fashionable districts.  We had a lot of fun and I got to see a side of Chișinău that I hadn’t seen before.  There are stores – like Abercrombie and Salamander – that one would see in the US.  There are multi-storied, densely packed buildings that house a warren of vendors selling an eclectic variety of products: one floor will be shoes, one floor fabric, another bed linens and bath accessories, one all toys, etc.  It’s like having a whole mall, but packed into one building.  Very efficient.  There are lovely parks with giant chessboards where people stand around watching a game like it’s a tennis match or something.  There seem to be hundreds of couples getting married.  They speed by in cars decorated with masking tape and colored plastic bags and honk horns and scream madly to passersby.  More pictures of Chișinău:

Darnell and Elsa
One of hundreds of wedding limos driving through Chisinau on Saturday
Parliament Building
Romulus and Remus in front of the Museum of Archeology
Game of Chess anyone?
Cinema
Biserica in the Park
See the tiny police car
City street
More city street – lovely trees