My thirty-year-old daughter is 5 months pregnant (with twins!) and I can’t help but relive my own pregnancy as she whines about the cumbersome tractor tire imprisoning her waistline. Outside of the wonder of creating life in the provenance of one’s belly, pregnancy engenders an urgent appreciation for the normal dimensions and mechanics of one’s body. Navigating the world with an extra 30-50 pounds of weight suddenly attached to your midsection makes you long to skip, jump, run, and dance to a degree not usually accessible when trying to build a routine exercise regime. My daughter swears that the first thing she’ll do after birthing The Guys (well, perhaps not the first thing….uncorking a bottle of champagne has been mentioned more than once) is slap on the spandex and begin moving vigorously in all directions. Shrinking back to fit within the outlines of one’s accustomed physical space almost overnight is, indeed, a giddy experience, one that can light a fire for intensive activity like nothing else.
Although I never considered myself overweight or awkward as a teenager or young adult, I was definitely not prone to running around with balls or sticks, migrating towards playing fields, joining teams, or sweating for pleasure. An athlete I was not, preferring the vistas made available through reading to the distant horizon of a finish line. But something about being dense and grounded by pregnancy propelled me into action once my daughter was born. I joined a gym (partly, I admit, because they offered free child care, a rare reprieve for a single, unemployed parent) and began the process of sculpting and toning muscles, building endurance, and inhabiting my own body in a manner I never had before. Because I was young and healthy and able to spend 2-3 hours a day working out, it did not take long to realize results. Within months I could do a strenuous aerobics class (oh the 80’s!,) lift weights for another hour, then wind up with a bout of intensive stretching before collecting the child and heading home. One Saturday morning, alone and on a whim, I ran ten miles just to see if could. (Although that was an isolated endeavor, folks; I never did have the stamina for enduring marathon-grade pain.) I felt glorious, distinctly remember appreciating the amazing capabilities of my body and promising myself never to let it slide back into lassitude and indolence again. Hah!
I present these two photos, taken some 25 years apart, as evidence of what happens when intention strays. That point in my life that allowed for daily hours-long workouts soon passed; I had a child to get off to school in the morning and a psychologically intense, emotionally-draining job that left me physically weary and more interested in accompanying co-workers to the bar than hitting the gym after work. Slowly, the weight crept on, not suddenly like pregnancy, but insidiously, over a long string of years, giving the lassitude and indolence firm purchase by the time I noticed the shapeless, plodding woman adjacent in the windows’ reflection was me. The accretion of pounds and loss of muscle accompanied the implacable vicissitudes of aging itself; the more weight padding my frame, the more recalcitrant my muscles, the heavier my bones, the stiffer my joints, the less likely I was to push myself through the interminable stretches of intense discomfort necessary to ameliorate the problem. Despite sporadic, albeit earnest, attempts to “get back in shape,” I was invariably defeated in the long run by my tendency to fall into books for pleasure, retreat to the kitchen for creative expression, and seek surcease of existential anxiety in the bottom of a wineglass. (For almost two decades, my husband’s and my primary recreational activity was restaurant dining.) By the time I was in my late 40’s I had all but given up. I did not have the energy or motivation needed to mount a campaign.
One of my fantasies of Peace Corps service was enforced starvation and exercise; I would return home after 27 months newly svelte from a dearth of edibles, desk chairs, and motorized vehicles. During the initial 3 months of training, forced to live with a Moldovan woman who subsisted largely on the abundance of her garden, slog up giant hills twice daily to language class, and endure the sweat bath of summer without air conditioning or fan, I did drop some 25 pounds with no forethought or planning. However, the minute I moved out on my own all hope was lost. (See above for the tendencies that perennially thwart me; surprisingly, those didn’t change with the geography.) I think I actually gained weight my last year, having befriended a group of hard-drinking, chain-smoking gourmands who introduced me to the burgeoning varieties of ethnic cuisine taking hold in Chisinau. (When $20 USD will buy you a 3 hour, five-course meal, with alcohol it’s hard to abstain.)
Now, weighing significantly more than I ever did pregnant, I find myself grounded in the Midwest, home base of the chronically obese, where there are more fast food restaurants per city block than telephone poles, gas stations, and grocery stores combined and lard is flavored twenty-nine ways and sold as a condiment. If one isn’t attentive it would be easy to collapse into the hammock of country fries and bacon grease. Alleviated from the time constraints of employment, isolated from the distractions of friends, family, and familiar territory, and suddenly attuned to the accelerating shrinkage of my lifeline, I am forcing myself to acknowledge that this is probably my final chance to recapture any vestige of the strength, flexibility and endurance that came so easily to me in my 20’s. Over the last six weeks of establishing a life here, I have pushed myself to incorporate incremental degrees of activity and allow longer stretches between alcoholic beverages and calorically-dense meals. Just today, focused on keeping the correct form while heaving barbells, I caught the faintest glimpse of the faded outlines of my long lost silhouette. For the first time in years, I allowed myself to believe it might actually still be in there, muffled by time and pounds and lethargy, but attainable if I keep myself on course.
Many of the Moldovans I know are rich in one regard: their daily lives generally incorporated a great deal of physical activity, from working in the garden to manual labor jobs to walking most everywhere they go. Conversely, exercise is something most Americans have to schedule into their day. It’s one of the reasons I have been so loathe to seek employment now that I’m back: I dread sitting on my ass for eight hours every day
Realistically, any measure of success is a matter of years, not months, now and I will never have the lung power or joint support I took for granted in my 20s and 30s. But it’s starting to feel vaguely pleasant, rather than punishing, to be moving. I can climb the three floors to our apartment carrying bags of groceries without panting. I logged two miles in under 30 minutes yesterday (pathetic, I know, but more than I could do six weeks ago!) I’m thinking when I arrive in California to help with The Guys I actually will have the stamina to do so. Much like pregnancy, aging is a brilliant attention-getter. It forces us to notice our bodies, to appreciate the freedom granted by mobility, the range of available activities that begin to narrow and slot one into the category of “old” if we let things slide.
I know I am nowhere near ready to be old. Here’s to fifty fitness!
I’m one of those people who have spent a significant portion of their lives thinking about how to live, trying to ascertain what ‘happiness’ is, if it’s even something one should aspire to attain, and whether a goal-driven existence is conducive to remaining present, aware, and appreciative of what is.
For years, the conundrum presented by the role of time in shaping not just our experience of life, but how we orient ourselves toward it, has confounded me. Despite my perennial inability to grasp the mathematics that describe them, the theorems of quantum physics fascinate me, especially those that deal with time as a dimension contributing to our particular perception and subsequent construction of reality. We are, in essence, three-dimensional beings who conceptualize time as a separate force that moves us from point A to point B, even though quantum physics has shown us, time and time again (yes, pun intended,) that such is not the case and that time is merely another aspect of space. At the speed of light, the “flow” of time is arrested; one reaches the continuous, undifferentiated present. Nirvana, some might say.
All my life I have experienced moments – sometimes weeks and months – of existential panic: what am I doing, where am I headed, what is the purpose of my life? Am I applying myself diligently to becoming the best I can be? Should I be working harder, giving larger, eating better, exercising more, saving money for a rainy day, fretting about my health, perambulating the globe to see every little thing I can see? I remember, clearly, a definitive demarcation, a tipping point that shifted my internal monologue irrevocably: the moment I knew I was pregnant and heretofore responsible for another human life, my own interests and predilections were summarily shelved. Raising a child, to the best of my abilities (and that did ebb and flow throughout the years) became the plot of the narrative running through my head. I fall for this man because of his huge heart that embraces both me and my daughter; we move here because of the superior school system and safe neighborhoods; I take this job because the hours are conducive to child care; I pursue a graduate degree and further promotions to provide ballet lessons, cheerleading camp, soccer uniforms, ski vacations and chauffeured birthday trips to Disneyland; we create a decades-long routine of unwavering predictability, weather marital storms and abusive bosses, watch our waistlines expand and our alcohol consumption increase; celebrate milestones and mourn the passing of our own youthful energy and exuberance – all to realize the “goal” of raising a child.
Still, there would be nights, usually after a bottle of wine and a desultory attempt to distract myself with a novel, when I would lie staring at the four walls pressing in on me and my heart would begin to flutter, my pores would emit a sheen of cold sweat, and my breath would go in but not out of my chest. That rising panic, the sense that my life was infinitesimally small, that I would live and die in such an incredibly insignificant, flat, colorless and static space, that all the flagrant wanderlust and burning curiosity of my youth had fizzled out and come to nothing – eventually, these crescendo-ing concerns could be countered and soothed by reciting the mantra of parents the world over: I’m doing all this for him/her/them.
Of course, I know now (and probably knew even then, but couldn’t acknowledge it) that this was a just a storyline, a plausible justification for having lost my impetus for adventure and becoming averse to risk, for staying in a stultifying situation that oftentimes did not excite or delight me but provided steady progress toward commonly recognized and respected aspirations. And it did work, remarkably well, actually. We raised a mentally healthy, relatively well-adjusted and emotionally secure human being. It stopped working, however, once she fledged and left me squatting in the abandoned nest, fat and featherless, confronting a wide-open sky that suddenly terrified me in its boundlessness. It is dramatically fitting, I suppose, that it was the baby bird who called it: when I floated the idea of joining Peace Corps, of making a leap of faith into the prevailing winds, she retorted “Well, of course – what in the heck is keeping you here?”
I worried, during the final months of my service, that the existential panic might find its way back to me once I landed stateside. It had been effectively silenced in Moldova by the dramatic arc of overseas service; I had left my country, my family and friends, my language and culture and geography, all that was familiar and routine, to embark on a voluntary adventure that was socially worthy and required a long-term, steadfast commitment. Peace Corps was my new plot, the next volume in the story of my life. It was exciting and challenging and provided a plausible explanation for abandoning an unrewarding job search and depressed economic forecast. I was morally “excused” from any existential fretting for the next three years. It was glorious. Even though, sometime during my second year as a volunteer, I did acknowledge – honestly and without trying to color it differently – that this path I had chosen was just another story, a way of living harmoniously with the circumstances life had thrown at me.
Coming home, I was very conscious of the need to find a new story. My husband had relocated to Ohio – close to his family but far from mine – and I had no clear job prospects, nor any burning desire to have one. I knew my own tendencies, though: I would find some hypothetical timeline or yardstick marked by cultural-, demographic and/or gender-specific goals and then begin reactively taking my measurement against it. If I found myself lagging I would feel like shit about myself for a little (or a long) while and then find the least-stressful and most convenient way to prop myself up. Meanwhile, I would be projecting into a future when I would be decades older yet still alive and healthy and the country and the economy would still look the same and the money I had diligently earned and saved would be sufficient to allow me to live a worry-free existence. Or…I could just stop worrying. Stop measuring myself. Take my eyes off the road ahead and look around me. I could write myself a different story. Volume three. (I AM a multivolume set.)
I admit, I have been waiting for an existential panic attack like one waits for the other shoe. A bad thing happened to me: I lost my job. Then another bad thing happened: my husband lost his job. We were unemployed together for a year; he experienced additional months after I escaped to Moldova. Now I am back, still unemployed and likely to remain so for the unforeseeable future. What should I tell myself? That I need to climb back on the tired horse I’ve already ridden? Adopt the same plotline I had before? (But wait a minute – no child to blame it on…)
I’ve begun to realize that the story is absolutely mine to narrate. I can add in somber music and stormy clouds, a cast of indifferent characters, or a little wizard behind a curtain. I can pitch it as a comedy, a drama, or a cautionary tale. Before, I was a white, middle-class, educated, professionally employed, middle-aged parent who’d gone thick around the middle and a bit dull in the head but had attained the appropriate markers to deem myself a success. Even though I was virtually indistinguishable from so many others around me, I was comfortable that way. Until I wasn’t. Then, through a series of (what I now deem) fortunate circumstances I began to see the outline of a different narrative, another means of interpreting and integrating my circumstances. I could make up my own markers. (I think that’s one of the beautiful revelations of aging: one begins to see through the pre-ordained prescripts of society for what they are: a means of ensuring that a diverse, over-large population can live in close proximity without killing each other while stoking a centralized economy.) But as long as I continue to play by the meta-rules – don’t lie, cheat, steal, hurt, or murder people – I am not required to mindlessly adopt the values or life trajectory that a 21st century, capitalist, technologically-oriented, Western society proscribed for me in order to measure my own worth or the satisfaction I take from my experience. I am my own narrator, the arbiter of how my story is told.
In support of my expressed wish to further practice the craft of writing, my husband once presented me with a marvelous little book called Exercises in Style, by Raymond Queneau. In it, he tells the same innocuous tale – of a crowded bus at midday where one man accuses another of jostling him and subsequently moves to a different seat – ninety-nine different ways, employing, amongst a host of widely varying styles and interpretations, the sonnet and the alexandrine, a Cockney flair, a rhyming slang, pig Latin, an interrogative punch, and permutations by groups of 5, 6, 7 and 8 letters. It is a fascinating display of talent and a perfect illustration of how one seemingly insignificant episode can be cast in distinct molds that change one’s perception of the material.
I used to see this with the kids in foster care: the measure of their resiliency was often demonstrated by the nature of their narrative, what they told themselves about how they ended up where they were. Mostly, there were two or three variations on a victim ideology and these were generally the kids who were depressed, furious, or numb. But there were a notable few who took preternatural hold of their own script, who refused to adopt or fall back on the patterns of behavior that being abused, neglected, emotionally flayed and love starved typically generated. For whatever reason, they were exceptions to the rule. They captained their own ships; even though they did not sail their chosen seas, they decided when to hoist the sails, batten down the hatches, heave ballast, or correct their course. One definitely had the sense that they were in a position to both combat severe weather and soak up sunny skies. I admired them greatly and took courage from their buoyancy.
Currently, I have cast myself in the role of peripatetic celebrant, finding reasons to recognize, honor, and nurture my body, family, friends, skills, and curiosity. I’m not sure of the specific soundtrack yet, but know it has a lot of bass drums, trilling violins and maybe an accordion or two. I haven’t written any bad guys into the plot: perhaps I just haven’t reached that chapter yet or maybe this particular volume won’t call for them. But if some dramatic, unanticipated plot twist should occur and I find my current circumstances profoundly altered, I trust that – having owned and honed this remarkable storytelling ability that all of us time-driven beings have been gifted – I will continue to write my own lines and guide the development of my character.
I still ponder the nature of time and how it propels us seemingly forward but actually just enlarges our circumference, allowing us to take in and incorporate even more diverse aspects of experiential space-time. In occasional flights of existential fantasy, I sometimes extrapolate this to what the other side of life might be like: time-warp velocity to reach the speed of light when the point A to point B narrative is experienced in its totality and there is no distance between the moments and life becomes the iridescent, fabulous coalition of melded pointillist interpretations, kind of like those celebrity portraits comprised of hundreds of separate photos of the same person. When the “I” that is me and the “I” that is you are realized, finally, to be stories told from kaleidoscoping points of view by an unimaginably creative and powerful pulsing of possibility, in and out, in and out.
So many stories to be told. It’s good to be a writer.
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.
You were born together, and together you shall be forevermore. You shall be together when white wings of death scatter your days. Aye, you shall be together even in the silent memory of God. But let there be spaces in your togetherness, and let the winds of the heavens dance between you. Love one another but make not a bond of love: Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls. Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup. Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf. Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone, Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music. Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping. For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts. And stand together, yet not too near together: For the pillars of the temple stand apart, And the oaktreeand the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.
– Kahlil Gibran “On Marriage”
I came of age in the 1970’s, a point in time when the pithy wisdoms contained in Gibran’s little book The Prophet tripped off every hippy-gypsy’s lips. I am sure I attended more than one wedding which highlighted this verse prominently within the invitation or featured it somewhere in the vows. Blue Mountain Cards appropriated and soon exhausted its sentiment (along with those on friendship, love, children, pain, and death, ad nausea.) Everyone I knew I had a self-annotated, coffee-stained, broken-spined copy lying about somewhere in the house. And I think most of us consigned them to the used book bin at the library sometime during the late 80s or early 90s, fearing that it branded one a literati imposter to even the most casual observer of one’s bookshelves (and we all know we make those judgments, don’t we?)
It’s a shame, as I doubt that many of us who were so enamored then by Gibran’s aphoristic prose truly had lived long enough to understand its rutted truths, ground out from endless repetition and the weight of heavy loads. Very few of us had married, borne children, experienced pain, grieved death. We thought we loved. We didn’t know the half of it. I don’t believe that many of us had been threshed naked, sifted free of husks, ground to whiteness, or kneaded into pliancy, as Gibran describes it, by age 17 or 23.
Coming across this verse by accident today, I read it over again with a deep and resonating pleasure. And I it made me realize that I have wanted for some time to address all the unspoken questions, speculations, and (sometimes) judgments I feel vibrating in my wake when people learn that I am married yet serving in Peace Corps without my spouse. I watch their eyes widen, their brows twitch, their mouths open and close as they quickly formulate an innocuous response to a non-traditional notion of marriage that appears to include living 6,000 miles apart. For twenty-seven months. And now add another twelve on top of that…let’s just admit that the winds of heaven have been enjoying quite the prolonged waltz between M and me.
For a long, long time, over 20 years in fact, M and I devoted concerted effort to cocooning ourselves within a comfort zone. We went to our jobs every day, which for a number of years were close enough to allow us to drive to work and/or have lunch together once or twice a week. We cleaned our house in tandem on the weekends. We ate dinner out often, went to movies, shopped at Costco, and walked the dogs. Together. We lived in a nice condo in a beautiful city with thousands of acres of hiking and biking trails surrounding us. The Pacific Ocean was a fifteen minute drive away. We made decent salaries and were able to save towards retirement. Like bunnies in a self-imposed hutch, we were warm, fed, plump, and circumscribed. And over time the cramp set in.
I can’t put my finger on it, even now, but I surmise – for me – it was the absolute predictability of it, day after day, year after year. I caught myself entertaining thoughts of a calamity, a catastrophic earthquake or tsunami that might come along and wipe our slate clean, forcing us to feel the wind again, to stretch our muscles and reach for something we couldn’t just buy. We had been huddled down and comfortable for so long, eating the same bread, drinking from the same cup, there was very little space in our togetherness. Now, rabbits can live this way, and rats and hamsters and, I imagine, some people, too. But it seemed, to me at least, that we were standing on each other’s shadows, breathing a stale and listless air, jammed too close to sing and dance or even quiver with the music. Year by year we grew more peevish with each other, prone to magnifying perceived slights and reading our books in different rooms.
Recently, I read an interview with Esther Perel, therapist and author of the book Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence; her 2013 TED talk on the subject has received over 4.5 million hits. She brings what I consider a novel approach to questions of marital discontent, strife, and infidelity: why do we imagine that our spouse can (or even should) be the only person to fulfill our every need for challenge, surprise, delight, wonder, curiosity, and amazement in our lives? While simultaneously serving as a grounding anchor, a reliable lighthouse beacon, a calm berth from storm-tossed seas, and a fire extinguisher if called upon. We expect so much from marriage these days, demanding nothing less than a ‘soul mate’ who will be the yin to our yang and soothe that ache we construe to be the severed chord that joined us before birth. We tell ourselves that there is someone out there who will finally “get” me, solve me, make me feel complete.
Only it doesn’t happen that way. And sometimes, many times in fact, when we’re feeling incomplete, misunderstood, kicked about by life, or maybe just plain bored to tears and that same ache – the one that was supposedly relieved by your soul mate – is back yawning and throbbing with an ever-increasing intensity, you find a most rational argument for turning round and blaming said soul mate for being such an awful hutch mate. Because if they weren’t so inconsiderate/ornery/stubborn/selfish/stupid/ insensitive/lazy/driven/blind/boring/batshit crazy (circle one or, better yet, several) then my life wouldn’t be so miserable right now, would it? Perhaps he or she is not ‘the one’, after all? Maybe there’s someone else out there waiting for me?
And it is exactly this type of rationale, Perel says, that can prove fatal to a marriage. Because maybe it isn’t him or her at all that’s the problem. Maybe you were expecting the unrealizable from marriage. Maybe there is no one out there who can fill the hole. Maybe it’s your own damn hole to fill.
Within a space of two months both M and I lost our jobs. I had been with mine for twenty years. He was let go four days before Christmas. This was 2010, when the economy was still flat on its back, barely twitching, giving no signs of recovery. Here was our tsunami, in some ways subtler but with a longer, more penetrating thrust. For many months we were like fossils pushing through a life that was gradually stiffening into amber. In the beginning it was novel, fun even, as if we were vacationing on Groundhog Day; work existed out there somewhere, tomorrow, but tomorrow never showed up. As if by rote, we still shopped at Costco, ate dinner out, and walked the dogs, only now twice or three times a day because we could. Eventually, we did stop cleaning the house, as weekends were no different than any other day and really we just stopped caring. After a number of months, it dawned on us that eating out was expensive; we began eating alone, behind closed doors, in front of screens. Our diurnal clocks gradually diverged; we would pass in the hallway at 5:00am, me, headed to the kitchen for coffee, M back to the bedroom for sleep. Our computers were in separate rooms and one day I realized we were sending each other emails rather than walking 20 feet to talk. It was as if we had both suffered the same paralyzing accident and each of us was waiting desultorily for the other, in some unacknowledged manner, to salvage things. In marriage, sometimes the lines between love and dependency can become indistinguishable.
Until one day, scrolling through online jobsites, my pointer strayed onto an advertisement for Peace Corps. Well that’s a blast from the past. I stared. Peace Corps is still around? Impulsively, I clicked. And suddenly the murky film that had been occluding my head for months was gone. Here it was, my life preserver, the raft that would carry me across the threshold I’d been stuck on for a decade. As I explored country options, volunteer living conditions, and program assignments, I felt an excitement that had been absent from my life for years and years come thundering back, returning to center stage. Here was what I wanted – nay, needed to do for me. I finally admitted to myself something I had been deliberately avoiding. I didn’twant to salvage my old life. I did not want to do any of it, anymore, at all. I hadn’t for a number of years. And it had nothing to do with M, the person who he was, the way we interacted or his treatment of me. He just happened to be the current participant in a life I no longer wished to lead. Now, a distant horizon beckoned me. Accompanied or alone, I was joining Peace Corps.
As it turned out, it was alone. Was it fair of me – to announce my plan and expect that it would be his solution, too? No, just as it was not fair to expect his solution to satisfy me. We had both come to a crossroad in our respective lives, lives that had been moving in parallel fashion for so long that we sort of forgot we were distinct people with separate feet that could tread different paths. It wasn’t easy on either of us to take the necessary steps to seal the deal – sell the condo, shed two decades of stuff, say goodbye to a lifestyle that so many others were striving to attain. I just kept putting one foot in front of the other, dead certain that this was the road I was supposed to be taking. And on June 3, 2012, we hugged goodbye. He drove away and I trundled the two suitcases that represented all my material belongings into LAX.
Recently, M and I spent a number of months together. And I reveled in both the familiarity and the novelty of his presence. He is my husband, my partner of 20-odd years. He looked the same and talked the same and exhibited the same quick wit and formidable intelligence. Yet there are things about him that were different. He has taken up cooking and is trying different foods (gone, the cheese-on-a-disk that was his go-to meal for decades.) He has backed away from political websites and rants and embraced the idiosyncratic philosophy of Hondo. Then moved across the country and found a new job in a completely different environment. Now he sends me self-composed haikus and calls me several times a weeks He is lighter, more joyful and positive, less prone to taking umbrage at the stupid things I say. (In fact, we recently discovered that his elf name is Happy Sparkle-pants.)
As for me, I count myself doubly blessed. I’ve seen a person – myself – emerge from a stifling cocoon of business suits and office politics and monthly bills and cookie-cutter days to re-inhabit the long skirts and funky jewelry and idealistic dreams and life without money that I thought were gone with my 20s. I’m fulfilling a long-cherished fantasy to live and work in a foreign country. I am seeing myself reflected in new people’s eyes, people whom I admire, and whose friendship I am grateful to have gained. I have accomplished things of which I’m proud. I no longer dream of earthquakes. Life’s horizons stretch out before me. The cage door has been flung open and I am definitely dancing and quivering to the music.
And when all is said and done I know I’ve still got that oak tree growing right alongside me, and together, standing separately, we’re holding up the temple of our beautiful, sustainable marriage. Now, I know that I have loved.
It is true that I went back and forth with myself about taking it with me: I packed it once, thought better of it, removed it from the suitcase, yet, as I was draping it back over the hangar, became bewitched again with the image of its soft black folds whirling about me in the winds whipping off the waves on the Isle of Skye. It was a fanciful accessory, a black cotton drape styled midway between cape and shawl, seemingly made by a costumer for a lass of the Scottish highlands. And, despite having left lass in the rearview mirror a couple of decades hence, I just couldn’t resist the notion of donning it on this quintessential stage. Perhaps it did carry a Iittle of the magic I had imbued it with over the years. A good luck charm for travel. Pulling it from the hangar, I bundled it up carefully and placed it in the front zippered pocket, readily accessible for the Kodak moment when it arrived.
I had first seen it on my sister almost 30 years ago and immediately coveted it. It was the height of my Fleetwood Mac phase, the mid-80’s, a time when it was surprisingly difficult to find the vintage, theatrical items that are a dime-a-dozen through Urban Outfitters, Buffalo Exchange, and hundreds of other outlets these days. It actually shocked me that she didn’t offer it to me – her of the easy acquiescence, the pliable Beth to my fiery Jo, the good one that always shared and never complained; nursing the arm I’d accidently broken, when she was eight and I twelve, into the predawn hours before her stifled whimpering finally alerted our mom. My little sister adored me, completely and utterly, in that unique, submissive fashion that a less studied character holds for one more flamboyant and artful.
Still life from a family photo album: me, front and center, encircled by a halo of pink tutu, hair coiffed in stiffly sprayed curls, eyes rimmed with turquoise, toe pointed in front of me, back arched, arms bowed at my sides; her, standing in the background, a little to my right, pudgy hands folded at her belly button, tights sagging, leotard bunched at her waist, mouth slightly agape, eyes gazing up at me, rapturous, as if Glinda had just materialized in front of her. An accidental, naked portrait of how it always was between us.
I had recently returned, reluctantly, to the dull harbor of my old bedroom at our parent’s house. Lorraine had just fledged, leaving the boyfriend she had lived with since high school to share a freshly outfitted apartment with a co-worker. There was a newly minted assurance coating her, a sheen of silvery confidence that signaled a subtle shift in our relationship. While my post-adolescence wanderings may have increased the hip-cred I brandished to cover my wounds, she seemed to have glided over my years of awkward angst to alight, perhaps tentatively, in a place of adulthood. She made me a little nervous.
But when she pulled out the black shawl one afternoon as we headed out to lunch, I immediately recovered my big sister voice.
“Oh wow, sissy – that is beautiful! Where did you get it? You have to give it to me!”
Closing my eyes I can still picture the careful compression of her puffy lips, the firm little shake of her head.
“Nope. It’s mine.” Lilt at the end. Smiling, but implacable.
She wore it everywhere we went during those long ago months: a concert; the fair; furniture shopping for her new place. And I continued to crave ownership, scooping it up and swirling it about my shoulders whenever I found it tossed on her couch, stomping about her living room like Stevie in her boots, belting out “Rhiannon” while flourishing an invisible tambourine. She would laugh and agree that it fit me. But she never ceded.
So perhaps it was a matter of course that I had my way elsewhere, appropriating the swarthy Armenian jeweler she brought me to meet one sunny afternoon in March. Perched on a Laguna bluff, his little shop part workspace, part bohemian haven, redolent of incense, curtained by vines and palm fronds. Andreas Vollenwieder rolled in buoyant waves over us as we sipped chardonnay from wrought iron chairs on his doorstep and watched the sun glint off the Pacific. Her flirting was so self-effacing and contained that it aggravated my chronic promiscuity. I was sleeping with him within a week.
Next, I impulsively acquired the same model car she had spent hours and hours making up her mind to buy, comparing color and interior options, gas mileage, performance ratings, and safety scores. She was days away from purchase when I drove up to her place in a brand new, blue, 5-speed Mitsubishi Cordia.
“You wanted white. I thought we could be twins.”
I think I actually made her mad with that one. But she never said a word. And within two weeks she had a Toyota Corolla fastback: smaller, sleeker, cuter.
It was the car she died in, it’s aroma of new carpet and leather seats not quite dissipated, a bare month later.
What does one do with dead people’s things? How much of the person do they hold within, captured moments and memories, static icons of fluid emotions, precious objects with no other intrinsic value than of once having been curated by someone disappeared?
Within hours of learning of my sister’s accident, I find myself in her bedroom, spinning in slow circles, a lighthouse spotlight trying to pierce the syrupy morning sunlight replete with bobbing dust motes, tiny faeries trying to break free of amber. My glance falls upon the cast off bathrobe crumpled on the bed; the brush full of hair lying on the windowsill; the smudged mirror reflecting tubes and compacts of make-up, bottles unscrewed, on the vanity; the open closet spilling forth clothing askew on its hangars. Bathrobe, brush, mirror, closet, bathrobe, brush, mirror, closet. The fairy dust shimmers as the sun rises higher. The smell of her conditioner lingers in the close air.
What to do with all of this? How sudden is the moment when things change into useless, superfluous litter, floating in space. Do I take that brush tangled with her last hair? The robe, still damp from last night’s shower? Or the lipstick she always wore, surely smeared with the tiny slivers of skin always flaking from her lips? I can’t seem to grasp it, the enormous, echoing void left by a life abruptly vacated, the cavernous, stretching emptiness of it, the detritus scattered on its shore.
It is only as I turn to go that my eyes brush across the tail of black fabric snaking out from amidst the sandals, sneakers, and high heels jumbled atop each other on the floor of the closet. I am in the doorway before it penetrates and I spin around.
Mine now. Sissy, it’s mine.
The years since her passing kaleidoscope: I’m a young, single mother; a university student; a counselor; an executive; a wife; a homeowner. My bank account expands along with my waistline. The Armenian jeweler moves to Hawaii and I never hear from him again. I sell the Cordia to buy the ’64 Porsche of my first husband’s dreams. Lace skirts and crystal beads give way to sensible pumps and blazers. The detritus of my own life recedes in my wake, falling beyond the horizon.
But the shawl stays, a lasting imprint, the cocoon I wrap around me during cold months of grieving, the totem of resilience and serenity which I doggedly tote through all my incarnations. Mine, but still hers, it takes me ten years to wash it, convinced as I am that her DNA is still entwined amongst the threads.
My daughter, too, comes to covet it. I let her wear it whenever; it fits her eclectic Echo Park, retro-Beat chic. But I am firm when I find it amongst the clothing she has piled in the back of her truck, preparing to move to Tahoe.
“Really, mom? It’s not like you can carry it off anymore.”
“It’s Lorraine’s, sweetie. It’s all I have left.”
She flings me the withering look.
“So I guess I’ll just wait for you to die, huh?”
It catches me. When will – if ever – I let it go? When will it would it be okay to let it slip from my grasp, to allow the last tangible piece of her to float away from me in space, to no longer have the least physical connection embody her? Why not let the one have it who will most likely be packing up my abandoned things someday? A thought – not enormous – but elusive, slippery, fraught with tingles of pain like little electric shocks sparking beneath my skin.
No. Not yet.
I found out that just days before her death Lorraine had driven to my grandmother’s house in Montrose to type up her application for American Airlines. (Yes, in 1985 we typed things.) She never mentioned it to me, perhaps because she knew the derision I would express for such a safe, contained version of wanderlust. Always methodical and practical, perhaps she had her own thoughts about my wanton attitude toward life at that time. Perhaps she had drawn her own conclusion, never articulated, about the big sister who jumped without quite attaining flight. About the web of scars filmed over by the gauzy persona of a world-weary, hippie-gypsy returned, hiding the tale between her legs.
I will never how it would have been between us, after the glitter faded. I know that she loved me. And I her. But women are not so little girls; who knows what it would have been like, each with her own stage, a separate spotlight, different audiences to attend to? In my imagination, at times, she eclipses me, meeting a middle-eastern businessman, moving to Turkey, having a passel of honey-bronze children, getting a PhD.
Me, I am more practical now. There are less and less occasions when a decades-old black shawl seems appropriate. In part, joining the Peace Corps was a little homage to her: a safe, contained way to indulge wanderlust. Yet, during the process of selling and giving away the bulk of my possessions before leaving, I hold the black shawl in my hands, weighing its significance, wondering if now is finally the right time to let go. And I recall the way the tangled gold of her hair spilled forth from the folds of the attached scarf when she wound it about her head. The way it enveloped her, hanging longer and looser about her smaller frame. The afternoons in her living room, draping it about myself seductively, twirling to the music with contrived abandon, hoping to win the prize.
I hold it up to my nose. Not a trace of her smell remains. I am not sure I even remember what she smelled like. With a fleeting sense of panic, I toss it in the “keep” pileand bring it with me to Moldova.
I am wearing it in the picture of me on the boat from the mainland crossing over to the Isle of Skye, the land of the faeries. I am smiling, happy to be going to a place on my bucket list. I am 51 years old; more lies behind me than in front of me these days. I can discern the dim outline of a horizon out there ahead.
So the emotions are mixed, confused, when I discover it missing as I am packing the next day to depart. Long, slow breaths as the realization floods in. It is gone, disappeared, leaving a black hole within my suitcase. Had I tossed it on the bed in the hostel, where some transient backpacker espied it, liberating it for it new adventure? Or placed it on the back of the chair at the bar, ready for the next itinerant guest to don before she boarded the cross-country train to distant realms? Or perhaps it went home with the server, to reside on the Isle of Skye for a handful of decades until her daughter packs it in a box or hangs it in up in her own closet someday? Who knows? It happened. It is gone from my life, the last trace of her, without me having to decide, choose, finally let go.
I tell myself she would be proud of me, that our love would have blossomed and flourished through the years, that we would have grown to stand next to each other, holding hands, shoulders touching, heads tilted slightly towards each other. In my mind’s eye, we share center stage and the spotlight cloaks us both in warm brilliance. Neither one of us is wearing the cape. A Kodak moment, a studied, slightly fuzzy portrait of the people we became.
And a clenched hand releases, letting her drift, the last anchor now lifted, finally free to roam the space of this world.
Just as a piece of matter detaches itself from the sun to live as a wholly new creation so I have come to feel about my detachment from America. Once the separation is made a new order is established, and there is no turning back. For me, the sun had ceased to exist; I had myself become a blazing sun. And like all other suns of the universe I had to nourish myself from within.
Henry Miller from The Cosmological Eye
I would be lying if I didn’t admit that at various points during the past year I have wondered whether I would make it to 2014 here in Moldova. Especially during those stark winter months after returning from Morocco, when I had no partner or assignment and the only bump in my weekly calendar was three hours of language lessons, I would fondle thoughts of hoisting the white flag and emerging from the trenches of my despair to board a jet plane back to America. With barely nine hours of daylight to fill, I was dog paddling each day through despondency, trying to hold my head up despite having nothing to plan for beyond my next meal. Once, my mood got so bleak that I Skyped my sister-in-law and had her walk outside with her laptop and hold it aloft to the blazing California sun just to remind myself that it still existed.
It was exactly during one of those low points, having called home for the fifteenth time in a matter of weeks, that my father offered me a ticket to surprise my mother for her 70th birthday. I was hesitant, but really only for about two minutes. My solemn vow not to ‘waste’ any of my precious 48 vacation days to return to the US sidled out the back door – I desperately wanted, needed, to feel at home again. Because my mom’s birthday conflicted with Turul Moldovei 2013 – the only project I had going at the time – we decided on Mother’s Day, instead. I hung up the phone and purchased a ticket. It was February 8th. Only 3 month and 3 days to go.
Thus began the countdown of anxiety. What would it actually feel like to be home again? So good I couldn’t stand the thought of returning? How much had things changed during the year I’d been gone? Would I feel strange, different, separate, alienated? Should I have accepted this expensive gift from my father when I had so fervently committed to being gone for 27 months? Was I cheating somehow? If I did indeed return would it make the second year even harder – having to say goodbye to everybody yet again, this time knowing what was in store for me?
As fate would have it, soon after I bought the ticket I was offered the opportunity to relocate to my current site. Daylight increased, the snow melted, and spring made a show-stopping appearance almost overnight. My new apartment was lovely – located in a senior center full of laughing, warm, and gregarious souls who immediately enveloped me in a circle of hospitality and friendship. I had a workplace, a partner, and an assignment. For the first time since pre-service training, I was busy.
My anxiety about going home increased.
Why was I tempting fate? I had made it through my first winter, probably the roughest patch I would experience during my service. Life was brighter, my mood was elevated, and things were finally falling into place. Why interrupt the flow with a step backwards? Would Moldova end up paling when placed under the bright lights of America? But the non-refundable ticket was purchased; good idea or not, I was going home.
And, indeed, the tears burst forth the moment I clutched my daughter in the airport. In the 27 years since her birth, I had never gone longer than four or five months without seeing her. This time, the passage of time was readily apparent. My little girl was finally, irrevocably gone; this was a full-fledged woman I was greeting. How could I have left her for so long? Can one year alter a face, a posture, a presence so greatly?
More tears when I locked onto my husband’s eyes through the windshield as he pulled the Jeep up to the curb at LAX. I was transported back to the last half of 2011 and the idyllic interlude of our journey across America: just the two of us and our dog exploring the national parks and forests, camping, hiking, cooking our meals under the stars until summer bled into autumn. His presence in the driver’s seat brought it all back. If there was one thing that could make me abandon all, it would be the chance to recapture those months and sit beside him through those miles again.
The tears let loose again when I felt myself revert back 40 years, suddenly a little girl again in her mother’s arms. To heighten the surprise, I had hidden in my brother’s backyard (he and my sister-in-law were hosting the Mother’s Day celebration.) When my mom came in the house, I called her from my iPad on the Google voice number I use in Moldova. I asked her if she could hear me, as I always do when commencing a call. I was surprised when she said she couldn’t (geez, I was barely 50 feet away!) I began the Verizon riff: “Can you hear me now? Can you hear me now?” as I made my way into the house. When I finally came around the corner of the hallway, I added “Because I’m right here.” Her legs promptly gave way and she fell in a heap on the floor in front of me. (My dad said it was worth every penny of the ticket.)
Yet, there were also little things that caught me off guard. My dogs barely acknowledged me. Unlike those YouTube videos of returned soldiers whose dogs about explode when they walk in the door, mine acted as if I’d just rounded the corner from the bedroom.
Everything seemed inordinately expensive. I spent the equivalent of my entire PC monthly stipend on one trip to Target to ‘pick up a few things.’ A dinner out with friends could have bought me ten nights out at Pizzamania in Moldova (with wine.) Parking for an hour at the beach would buy two round trip bus tickets from my village into Chișinău.
And the cars. The endless stream of cars. The streets built for a multitude of vehicles and the sound and smell of them filling the atmosphere. The parking lots – acres and acres of parking lots. I’d never noticed how much space is devoted to parking cars in America. And how people drive everywhere, mostly alone in a bubble of their own creation. No sweaty armpits shoved in their faces. No jostling for space among strangers, wondering if you should buy a seat for your bags. But also a huge, artificial border. As if we each existed on our own space ship, controlled our own climate, sped through the day alone.
Mostly, everything was the same as it was when I first decided I needed to go. Sitting with my friends, listening to them talk about their jobs and homes and weekend excursions and new purchases, I felt strangely apart. These concerns, realities, worries, and excitements were no longer mine. They hadn’t been for more than two and a half years. Sifting through the mercurial sands of memory, I remembered that I had consciously desired, then chosen to separate myself from this world. I had wanted to nourish myself from within.
And when – after 27 hours of international flights, transfers, security checks, baggage claim, visa stamps, bus rides and a twenty minute hike down a dirt road with my luggage – I finally turned the key in the lock and entered back into my sunlit, solitary, sparsely furnished domain, I felt the warm welcome of home.
Moldova appears just a bit different to me now. A little more lush. A little less alien. Perhaps it’s the just the abundance of spring – the thunderstorms, the nesting birds, the bursting palette of flowers. Or the unbridled enthusiasm and genuine smiles of all those who exclaimed at my return. Or maybe the ticking clock that steadily punctuates the blanketing silence in my very own apartment – the first I’ve had in fifty-one years of life on this planet.
I know now, for the very first time, that I did the right thing. I have become my own sun.
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…
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….
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.
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!
I may have relayed that Nina invited Andrei and Mihai to my birthday masa last Wednesday night (Andrei and Mihai are the two gentleman that figured largely in my blog post about attending a celebration in Boghocieni though I didn’t know their names at the time. MIhai is the man who guided me through the hitching process, Andrei the man who emerged in his bathrobe…) So a couple of hours into the party, and several bottles of wine later, either Andrei or Mihai brings up the Agricultural Expo taking place this weekend at the Moldexpo in Chișinău. They want me and the other three volunteers present – Matt, Lindsey and Patty Harlan – to come with them. At least this is what I understood at the time. Both Lindsey and Matt refuse the invitation, citing other plans, and it is my initial impulse to do likewise. After all, I truly am a city mouse and have no penetrating interest in farm implements, combines, and animal husbandry techniques. However, I pause and consider the fact that this would present a real opportunity for integration and show me a side of Moldova that I don’t have easy access to, living in a raoin center like I do. And, admittedly, the wine has painted the world friendly and fun and I think “what the heck, I’ll go!” I then talk Patty into joining us, though this involves her rearranging a language lesson and pulling herself out of the heavily tread routine she’s dug for herself in Hîncești. (I think she may be the only M27 who remained at site for a record two months after PST. She ventured into Chisinau a mere week ago on an excursion with fellow Moldovan teachers on a hired bus to the opera – which doesn’t really count as far as I’m concerned.)
Come Friday, however, Patty has a chance to view an apartment for rent that morning and has decided that this is more important to her overall happiness than accompanying me to Agrofest. So now it’s me and the two Moldovan men. While this causes a stir of apprehension within me, I console myself with the knowledge that these are two good friends of Nina and it would be impossible for them to perpetrate some indiscretion upon my person without her finding out and making mincemeat of them (Nina is traveling to her village for the weekend – like usual – and cannot join us.) So I hold off on canceling out – I don’t have their contact info and probably couldn’t make myself understood over the phone anyway – and wait for the knock upon the door. Which, in typical Moldovan fashion, comes precisely 51 minutes after the agreed upon time of 9:00am.
Surprisingly, when I answer the door, there is Mihai, alone, in suit and tie, smelling faintly of cologne, no Andrei in sight. Well, perhaps he is waiting out in the car? Again, will I ever learn? No car, no Andrei, and off Mihai and I trek to the bus headed into Chișinău. At least it’s a bus this time and we’re not standing on the side of the road trying to negotiate a ride with a truck driver, I think. Which should have been my first inkling that perhaps this little excursion held a bit more significance than I – with my casual American attitude regarding cross-gender friendships – might be initially aware. As Mihai held my arm crossing the street – a feat I accomplish with no assistance several times a day – and guided me onto to the bus midst the teeming throng – again, a negotiation I have successfully managed without fear or trouble many, many times in Moldova – something began tickling the underside of my brain, like the feeling you get when you might have left the iron on at home or forgot to turn off a burner on the stove. Then, I realize that he has paid the driver for my ticket as we have boarded after the moment when the driver walks down the aisle collecting the money. I try to repay him the money for my fare, but he refuses to take it. Then, after we are seated, he turns and (tenderly) brushes away hair that had caught in my eyelash, and suddenly an alarm bell begins to ring, loud, clear and insistent, in my head. OH MY GOD – this is what PC warned us about!!! Any excursion comprised of a man and a woman – especially if you are beyond the naivety of youth – constitutes a date in Moldova, no matter how innocently you might have accepted said invitation. Oh shit, shit, shit!!! I’m on a f***ing date!
When Mihai reaches across the back of my shoulder to open up the curtain so I can see the view, I descend into a brief panic. Thankfully, his arm retreats back to his side and we resume a halting conversation about the beauty of the countryside (autumn – so far – presents Moldova in her very best light), the whereabouts of his apartment, the times I have previously traveled to Chișinău, the number and gender of his children and grandchildren, etc. I am still holding out hope that perhaps we are meeting Andrei at the expo and I begin to relax a bit. Silence ensues and I zone out watch the passing rust and mauve-tinged vineyards and brilliant blue sky outside my window. However, once we arrive at the Gara de Sud and he again grabs my arm (even though I have purposefully paced myself to walk two feet behind him,) and again pays the driver for my ticket (despite me having my fare in my hand) and proceeds to kick a young woman out of her seat so I can sit down (causing me great consternation and embarrassment) and then smiles at me every time I look up and see him watching me, I realize that I need to make the status of this little divertissement as clear as I possibly can.
Once we arrive at Moldexpo and it is clear that Andrei is not, indeed, joining us and the conversation lands on the distance marriage that Nina and her husband have contrived (him living full time on the farm in their village and her residing in the city because of her work with Avon) I realize this is the perfect opportunity for a brief segue into my personal circumstances. I remind Mihai about my own marital status, the fact that my husband does not like to travel like me, that he has an important, well-paying job in America, and that I am here because of a desire to live and work in a different county for a time, but that I will be returning after two years. (All information that I have shared before, but I figured that revisiting it couldn’t hurt.) This was the best I could manage, given my limited range of Romanian and the intricate complexities required to convey conflicting emotions and delayed dreams and the deep insights into mortality that mid-life birthdays seem to convey for us first-worlders. Suffice it to say that he was quiet for awhile after this, but I may be flattering myself unduly. I have no idea if I embarrassed him by implying that his intentions were anything other than friendship, if he was confused by why I needed to insert previously established biographical data during an excursion to Agrofest, or if he was busily re-organizing our activities for the day to accommodate my (hopefully) clear lack of intention to pursue a more intimate angle. I could have been wrong about the whole thing, given my absence from the universe of courtship for almost a quarter century now. Oh well. Better safe than sorry.
By the time we enter the gates to the expo, small talk has resumed, the sun is peeking out from glorious, white-feathered clouds and a brisk breeze periodically floats women’s brightly colored scarves about their necks and hair. The day is beautiful and it is interesting to see the range of equipment on display, from micro-tractors built in Japan designed for the private farmer to gigantic, towering combines from Russia looming far above our heads that, Mihai tells me, are only affordable – maybe – for ‘associations’ – to group purchase in Moldova. (These machines-on-steroids continually elicit disgust from him as flagrant reminders of Russia’s ‘abandonment’ of the Moldovan economy – he is one of a certain segment of Moldovans that thinks returning to the fold of the Soviet Union to be its only hope for a brighter future.)
Mihai exhibits a preternatural ability to pick foreigners out from the crowd and everytime he sees one he drags me over and excitedly announces that I am an American that speaks English. This provokes some puzzled looks (he, after all, is not speaking English) until I open my mouth and say, “Hello, where are you from?” and we establish that, indeed, Mihai correctly assessed that they were from Germany or Holland or England or Bulgaria and – as never fails to astound me – speak almost perfect English. (Americans remain stubbornly parochial in our language limitations largely because we can.) He even announces this to Moldovans, finding a handful that also speak perfect English which results in me exchanging phone numbers with the daughter of the Moldovan Minister of Foreign Affairs (a great PC connection, if I can figure out how to use it) and a woman who conducts tours throughout Moldova in her own private vehicle (an exciting expansion of my travel capabilities.) I meet several who have gone to school in the US in such varied states as North Carolina, Virginia, and New Mexico. I share with them that last year at this time I was traveling through those very states. We exclaim mutual surprise at the relative smallest of the world.
Mihai, meanwhile, has been gathering every piece of literature offered by the vendors. He has a bag filled with twin, sometimes even quadruple, copies of every brochure, catalog, pamphlet, magazine, flyer, newsletter, and booklet that was offered. And every time he picks one up, he looks slyly around and carefully slips it into the bag as if he is in a covert operation collecting evidence for some sort of political intrigue. I think that he is naively unaware that these articles are provided without charge and assumes he is getting away with something in obtaining this wealth of information for free. I convey to him, as politely as possible, several times, that I really have no use for this literature but he continues to collect it, stating that we will give my portion to Nina’s husband for wintertime reading on the farm. By the time we reach the end of the exhibition I swear the bag must weigh twenty pounds. (I hope Nina’s husband will appreciate this effort, but it seems like a yawn-inducing compilation to me…)
After the exhibitors begin to dismantle their wares, Mihai has me call his sister for him (he doesn’t own a mobile phone, remember, an antediluvian idiosyncrasy even in Moldova.) I hand the phone to him and then wonder why I can’t understand anything he says until I realize he’s speaking Russian – ah, yes, the Russian connection – and he tells me afterwards that we are now going to his sister’s in Buiucani, a fancier section of Chișinău that is home, amongst other institutions, to the University of Moldova and the American Embassy. Great – now I’m being taken to meet the family? crosses my mind briefly but I let go the thought; the day has been fun and his manners impeccable and there has been nothing to concern me since I made my awkward little speech.
Julia’s apartment is spacious and modern, though a little disordered from renovations she appears to be committing on the wrought iron that laces the outside of her windows. Our visit is made instantly convivial by a large bottle of homemade wine and it is from his sister that I learn of Mihai’s wife, Nina, who has been living in Israel for the past five years working as a nanny. (This information surfaces in the midst of a comic ridicule of Israeli dependence on American aid and a somewhat skewed notion of Putsin’s character strength in refusing to provide money to spoiled nations.) I am more than a little surprised that the existence of said wife has not been proffered in previous conversation, either by Mihai or my host sister, Nina. Such biographical data seems integral to me to basic, introductory phases of communication. This leaves me worried – just a bit – of perhaps not having misinterpreted Mihai’s intentions, after all. And my Nina is fully capable of aiding and abetting such deceptions. She is one of a certain demographic of independent Moldovan women who appear to have a more casual, European view of marriage and conjugal relations, stating on more than a few occasions that I should remain open to entertaining the attentions of a “barbat” while I’m in Moldova.
So when Julia forcing the unopened bottle of beer Mihai has brought with him back on us is coupled with his stated attention to accompany me home purportedly to divide the literature loot between us, and then I find the apartment still empty of Nina, I quickly pull out my phone and call Patty. Like an angel, she appears after a mere half glass of beer has been consumed between us and all social discomfort – imaginary or actual – is resoundingly diverted by her presence. We sustain 30 minutes or so of trivial conversation, but it is only after I yawn repeatedly and repeat “obisita” (tired) several times that Mihai begins to gather his booklets and turn his attention to departure. Observing traditional Moldovan etiquette, I accompany him to the door, where he pulls a final, fast one that confirms for me that my long-dormant instinct is still operating correctly. In Moldova, it is common for women to kiss each other on either cheek when greeting or saying goodbye. For men, however, it is more customary to either take a woman’s hand and feign kissing it or, if one is particularly gallant, to actually place his lips lightly upon it. Relatives and particularly close friends – i.e., Nina and Mihai, say – will allow a kiss on the cheek from the man to the woman. When Mihai started toward my face, I flinched, and then was horrified when he kissed me smack on the lips and then giggled mischievously. I was so shocked I just stood there with my mouth agape before gathering my befuddled brain to shout “rau!” (bad!) at his departing back as his disappeared down the stairs.
Another lesson stumbled through about the nuances of Moldovan culture and the difficulties of communicating clearly without a better command of language. Perhaps it was just a teasing gesture on the part of a lonely man who welcomes female company of any sort in the prolonged absence of a wife (dear me, does that mean my husband is kissing neighbors?) but I will need to establish much firmer boundaries if I ever decide to accept such an invitation again. These are the aspects of Peace Corps service that one just doesn’t anticipate. Really.