Buyer’s remorse

For a short while before I actually relocated to Ohio, Mike would field the notion of us purchasing a house here; every couple of phone calls we would return to worry the pros and cons between us, for surely this would be a reasonable next step for us now that my global peregrinations have (at least for the time being) abated. Zillow lists the median price for a home in this area at $138k, about the price we paid for our 3-bedroom condo in Irvine 21 years ago. We could easily qualify on his salary alone; he is making more now than we both made together in 1995. On the face of it, it seems like a prudent decision. He’ll want to retire in the next 10-15 years and we’ll have a home that’s ours for the rest of our lives. Yet, unaccountably, I would mentally cross my arms and dig in my heels every time he mentioned it; my tendency was to lob the decision back into his court: “Well, if that’s what you want…” thereby signaling divestiture of any responsibility on my part. Why is that? I would think. Why am I so resistant to putting my name on a deed, assuming ownership of a piece of property and taking responsibility for its maintenance?

To me, having 20 years of home-ownership and a raft of friends and family members negotiating their own purchases, remodels and/or refinance packages, a house represents so much more than just a safe harbor from the elements. Ever the bourgeoisie yearning toward nobility, we have elevated the home into a personal statement, a shrine to our domestic aspirations, our creativity and artistic abilities, our purchasing power and entertainment proclivities. One can reside in an apartment, or even a rented house for that matter, and be reasonably excused from not displaying attractive shades of paint, double-pane windows, Sub-zero appliances, or custom maple flooring. But once you own that home? Well, come on now, we all do it: crossing the threshold into a new acquaintance’s home for the first time, we begin a subtle inventory of the environment, each wall-hanging, end table, throw rug, light fixture, and counter-top a physical embodiment of that person’s aesthetic sense, an external expression of their interior life and mental landscaping. We learn much about people’s values and priorities in observing the choices they make regarding their domestic surroundings. It is glaringly apparent in Moldova, where those having the means segregate themselves from the downtrodden behind block walls and painted, wrought-iron fences enclosing fabulous gardens and multi-storied fortresses with tiled interiors, Ikea kitchens, and wedding-cake window treatments. (Walk outside that gate and encounter dust-laden roads with pot-holes wading-pool deep, stray dogs with gaping wounds licking fly-laden cartons amidst strewn trash, and men in the final throws of alcoholism face down in their own piss, but that’s not your problem. Casa ta este foarte frumos. And this is not an issue exclusive to Moldova, by any means, just one made more obvious by their juxtaposition. We here in America have learned how to segregate our poverty.)

Every day, I struggle against the impulsiveness of my own acquisitiveness. Target, CVS, Costco – they are all destinations laden with temptation for me. I am particularly prone to lotions, potions and culinary gadgetry: wave a civet-scented, buffalo-tallow-based body moisturizer, chocolate-infused balsamic reduction, or stainless-steel herb slicer in my face and it’s in the basket before I’ve even noted the price. I find my hand wavering now in the drugstore beauty section: is that Moroccan argan-oil smoothing treatment really going to improve the quality of my life? Is it worth the money I’ll spend, the clutter it will add to the narrow bathroom sink, the trash it will end up becoming when the contents of the bottle are gone?

I remember all too clearly the agonizing decisions that attended the dispersal of twenty years’ accumulated furniture, house wares, clothing, tchotchkes and mementos. Every object became that much heavier, knowing that holding on came with a cost and letting go meant forever. I want to prettify my new bedroom, yet know it will take hours and hours of scouring Goodwill, Craigslist, or the local flea markets to find those specific pieces which will accurately reflect my interior landscape, the aesthetic ethic that prioritizes reuse, recycling, and re-purposing over built-in obsolescence but is generally too lazy to see a decor from concept through to fruition. I am vulnerable to the knowledge that anything I end up choosing says something about how I wish other’s to see me and so increasingly opt not to choose anything at all. Buying a house would bring on a horde of mind-cluttering decisions that I just don’t want to entertain. Paint, molding, flooring, sinks, towel racks, faucets, window coverings – shit. I’d rather read a book, take a walk, plan dinner, and write.

I am reminded, also, of a proclivity I had in childhood. My little sister and I (me in the position of Project Manager, of course) would spend hours setting up our Barbie Dream House, Kitchen Carousel, Vanity Bedroom, and vast collection of molded plastic furniture, Barbie-sized vehicles and wardrobes. With each passing birthday and Christmas, our collection became grander until our delight in the pastime was invested almost exclusively in the planning and set-up; nine times out of ten, by the time we had finished negotiating territory, diagramming architecture, meticulously constructing, then (inevitably) rearranging our fantasy Barbie world, we had little time, imagination, or interest remaining to actually play with the dolls themselves. Such foreshadowing: life becomes so dense with acquisition and planning that either we lose impetus or leave no time for the actual experience.

***

Each moment is a choice. What aging reveals to most of us is that the routine decision-track our culture programs us to follow – college major, profession, marriage, home, babies – has huge implications for conscripting our attention, creativity, and energy for years and years and years. Intercourse takes an instant (or 30, I guess, if there’s foreplay) yet its consequences may join you for a lifetime. Purchasing a home, on average, takes a handful of months; for the subsequent 15-30 years many of your future options will be influenced, conscripted, or curtailed by the need to pay that monthly mortgage. As my lifeline shrinks with each passing year, I find myself increasingly troubled by these seemingly practical decisions that threaten to catch me up, tie me down, or force me a hand I don’t wish to play. I marvel at how the past five years continue to pulse within me, alive and rich and meaningful, whereas the bulk of time from when I was 35 to 49 resembles a foggy, impenetrable valley between the craggy peaks of youth and the paradigm-shattering day I lost my job. A few years ago I attempted a journal exercise, to string a lifeline of significant memories from my earliest to the present day through discreet decades. I scribbled madly along through the first 5-6 pages, recalling kindergarten playmates, newborn pets, neighborhood bullies, schoolyard embarrassments, and classroom crushes. Clear as day were recollections of Humboldt, nights of Ecstasy, travels through Big Sur, dynamic debates in college seminars and the brain explosions they induced, my sister’s death, my daughter’s birth, my impetuous first marriage, and the night Mike and I kissed for the first time. But then the memories abruptly dropped off, disappearing into that long low valley obscured by a hazy sameness, an undifferentiated terrain that did not change, year after year after year. For three pages, representing the years 1990 through 2010, I recorded exactly five memories: interviewing at Canyon Acres, breaking my ankle; marrying Mike, traveling to South America, and losing my job. Otherwise, my time line lay undistinguished and mute, terrifying in its utter blankness. With each moment so precious and ever dwindling, how did I let a huge swath of my life be swept under a rug?

Comparing the last five years with that monstrous erased portion of time, I find that the key lies in change. I stayed in the same house, worked for the same employer, was married to the same man, drove the same freeways, shopped at the same markets, and palled around with the same folks for one long, unbroken marathon of years. And I realize that for some people this is the epitome of happiness: routine, predictability, the sense of accomplishment and having arrived into the fullness of one’s life is the essence of success. You’ve hit all the markers and walked off with the prize. Yet how come literature and music and film are replete with those characters who, having wrested the trophy from the clutches of adversity with much personal sacrifice, find themselves intoning that age-old litany: Is that all there is?

I happened upon an excerpt from the German psychologist Marc Wittman’s recent book Felt Time: the Psychology of How We Perceive Time that explains much to me:

In order to feel that one’s life is flowing more slowly — and fully — one might seek out new situations over and over to have novel experiences that, because of their emotional value, are retained by memory over the long term. Greater variety makes a given period of life expand in retrospect. Life passes more slowly. If one challenges oneself consistently, it pays off, over the years, as the feeling of having lived fully — and, most importantly, of having lived for a long time.

I want to live, actually live, for a long more time. I am awed by the fragility of my existence, its propensity to slide towards ennui when I don’t consciously mind my moments. I wish to handle it reverently, like a newborn babe, breathing in all its potentials while remaining aware of how my choices manifest them, or not. Life is such an awesome responsibility, such a burgeoning gift that responds abundantly in rewarding our attention, yet how little of it we sometimes pay. Those five regrets of the dying volleyed through the internet a number of years ago were each the echo of decisions made, reverberations of unmindful choices that struck their last resounding knell over people’s death beds. My 73-year-old father, in one poignant sentence over the breakfast table, summed up his sudden sense of urgency upon recovering from a scary bout of viral meningitis: I feel like I’m running out of time. It is unfortunate that it often takes a brush with catastrophe to set those alarm bells ringing. Then again, such presents us with the mercurial opportunity for gratitude even in our darkest hours, like the (truly) immortal line of OneRepublic’s jubilant anthem Counting Stars: Everything that kills me makes me feel alive.

I’m still undecided about the house. And I’m going to live with that for now.

Market High

Market High

One of the distinct pleasures of living in Moldova – and I believe most of my M27 cohorts will agree on this one – was shopping at the Chișinău outdoor market, called the piața in Romanian (pronounced pee-aht-za.) The piața was located in the center of downtown, spreading across a couple of city blocks, pedestrian-only, no cars allowed. Here, one could find virtually anything from vegetables, fruits, meats, dairy products and fresh-baked bread to screwdrivers, sweatshirts, bicycle tires, alcohol, pet leashes, and laundry soap. There existed no map of vendors, though like items – such as clothing, hardware, and cleaning products – tended to be located in roughly the same areas. Initially, one had to rely on second-year volunteers to give directions (“turn left where the old Russian guy is selling radios, then go until you see the egg ladies, make a hard right and you’ll be in front of the fish place.”) Invariably, it was wall-to-wall shoppers: bunicăs hobbling in sturdy shoes, stabbing their canes ahead of them; wiry teenagers pushing carts laden with boxed produce pell-mell through the crowds, no regard for elbows or toes; fathers bearing small children aloft on shoulders; young fashionistas tilting along on impossibly high heels. It took me almost a year to familiarize myself with the varied wares hidden within its twisting, turning corridors and yet another one to have sufficient command of the language to negotiate a fair price and not automatically accept the (usually inflated) “American” price proffered to English-only speakers. During my third year food shopping became an almost daily task, not only due to the limited space in my pint-sized fridge, but largely because I welcomed the bustling, cacophonous counterpoint it provided to my otherwise calm and ordered existence. The morning dive into the piața’s seething sea of flesh and the contact it provided with those who brought the garden to my table was a definite high point of the day.

One of my intentions in making a transition to life back in the states was to continue this practice of walking to a local market to purchase the ingredients for my dinner. This quickly proved overly time-consuming, however; Irvine has a wealth of diverse shopping venues but it was built to support car-culture, not pedestrians seeking to tick off the day’s purchases in fewer than ten miles. Often, my list would contain items found only in specialty stores – Whole Foods or Mother’s or the Indian grocery, say – or bulk items that were most reasonably priced at Trader Joe’s or Costco. I would generally walk to one of these locations daily, but then spend another hour driving around in my car to all the other places. It was so easy to slip back into the habit of buying a week’s worth of food, sacrificing crispness in my vegetables or firmness in my fruit for the added time gained by not having to run around to four or five stores each day.

And then I got to Fairfield and met Jungle Jim.

Jungle Jim's

My husband had waxed rhapsodic about Jungle Jim’s International Market from the moment he discovered it a month or so after moving to Ohio. (I believe he actually chose his apartment based on its proximity to the store.) He was so enamored with its eclectic set-up and cornucopia of products that we soon jokingly began referring to it as ‘Church’ in our daily telephone calls, as in “I need to hang up now; I just drove into the parking lot of Church.” He went almost every day after work and would then call back to inform me about what spectacular cut of meat he’d scored or the marvelous discovery he had happened upon in the candy aisle (Presidential Pez-head dispensers, chocolate-covered crickets) or the offerings at the tasting bar (chocolate stout, sparkling pear wine) that evening. As the date of my move east approached, I began mapping out the locations of my favored markets and was horrified to learn that, not only were there no Trader’s Joe’s or Whole Food markets within walking distance, their closest outposts were some 20 miles south in Cincinnati. “Don’t worry,” he told me. “You’ll find everything you need at Jungle Jim’s.” Really? I found myself thinking. Do they even know what bulgur is in Ohio?

It stretches my descriptive powers to properly convey the circus-cum-carnival-meets-back-country-five-&-dime atmosphere of this place. Yes, indeed, there are life-sized, paper-mache giraffes, monkeys, flamingos, and elephants gathered to greet you where the waterfall dumps into penny-toss pool out front. Carousel? Check. Monorail? Check. Entertainment center regularly hosting comedy nights, wellness festivals and weddings? Uh-huh. In-store Starbucks, cigar-shop, toy store, cooking school? Yep, yep, yep and yep. Need to do some banking? No problem, in the store. Pharmacy? We got you covered. Post office? Need you ask? The average American supermarket stocks, on average, 47,000 products, most of which are produced by only a handful of food companies. Compare this to JJ’s website claim that they offer over 150,000 brands, 60,000 of which are produced by global manufacturers from Edinburgh to Istanbul. Seriously, you can buy a floor-sized hookah in the Middle Eastern aisle for $109. There is a 75 foot row of soy sauces – that’s it, just soy sauces. 180 different types of hot sauce. A three aisle section devoted entirely to cheese, It stocks one of the largest wine collections in the United States. (It has a hell of a lot of beer, too.) The store is 200,000 square feet and I think, just like the piața, it will take me a good year to learn all that it contains. (Who knows, there might be bicycle tires.) And it’s a ten minute walk from my front door.

My husband has actually met James O. Bonaminio, the eponymous originator of Jungle Jim’s. He encountered him in doctor’s scrubs at last year’s Beer Fest (“Is there a doctor in the house?” the overhead speakers would periodically announce,) but has run into him since working alongside stockers and checkers in jeans and tennies. In 2012 he opened a second location just outside of Cincinnati. I am tempted to ask if he’d franchise. I could see this making a hit in LA.

Jim
The wizard himself, Jungle Jim

***

Ten years ago I never thought much about shopping for food; it was a chore that fit in somewhere between gassing up the car and dropping off the dry cleaning. But in the last couple of years it’s become a significant aspect of my day, something I view as one ingredient in a larger composition having to do with my health and well-being. Even before Moldova, I’d been conscious of the amount and type of food that I consume, the way it’s been grown and processed, how much packaging surrounds it. Then, shopping in the piața taught me how the very act of purchasing can differ from place to place, and that finding and selecting my ingredients can be a pleasurable task, rather than just another chore in my busy day. And now Ohio has gifted me an amusing, one-of-a-kind, wonderland of international, organic, farm-to-table, fresh caught, small-craft fare that provides me both a daily dose of happiness and a nice walk to boot. Who would’ve thought one could find such think outside a multi-chain corporate conglomerate?

And if any of you are interested in chocolate-covered insects, let me know. I can mail them to you right from the store.

Trading down for uptime

Now that my Peace Corps service is over and the residual effects of my father’s viral meningitis are fading and I have landed – finally – back in residence with my husband, I am faced with the prospect of What to Do Now? Over the past few months, this question has unfurled like a fiddle-head fern, sprouting its own leafy series of subheadings, such as: What defines success? Security? How much is enough? Which goals are generated by fear? Anxiety? Acquisitiveness? Envy? How often does regret, or guilt, or the regard of my peer group impel my choice of activities? Living inside of a different culture for three years has gifted me a different perspective on my own; stepping stones I took for granted for most of my adult life – undergoing education; managing my career; acquiring real estate; seeking promotions and increased responsibility (read: higher paychecks;) scheduling leisure, as well as physical, activity time; upgrading my phone, vehicle, exercise equipment, entertainment systems, appliances and wardrobe to remain abreast of current trends – all have been yanked from their purposeful pedestals and called in for interrogation.

I have just come from a weekend reunion of ten of my M27 cohorts (the 27th group of PCVs to serve in Moldova) and these suddenly suspect notions provided an unspoken backdrop to most of my conversations. All but two of us left Moldova in July of 2014, the scheduled close-of-service for our two-year stint (I stayed an extra year, one woman left a year early, in 2013.) This reunion afforded me the opportunity to see how those who had been home for 2-3 years picked up the threads of their past lives. What were their values? Dreams? Aspirations? Goals? How does one reboot after a life-altering experience? The ways I found are as varied as the people who tread them.

Our host, widowed shortly before her service, has taken a part-time job working as a counselor with the homeless in her mid-sized town. This might be viewed as a step down from the positions of managerial responsibility she held in the past; what she likes most about the work is the engagement it provides with her community and the increased free time she gains from working only 20 hours per week. Of the remaining nine attendees, the only person besides our host older than me is retired and engaged to be married to another M27; while she fund raises for the local university, he keeps busy volunteering for various civic organizations and both are actors  in their community’s theater group. One couple is employed with the federal government; looking to continue overseas assignments, they elected the standard path through DC after PC service. Both are strongly concerned with work-life balance and avoiding consumer-culture. Another is recently married with a 4-month-old son; she enjoys taking him to museums, parks, baby massage and yoga classes. One is finishing up grad school and is still undecided about next steps; another is employed in her family’s business and travels extensively throughout the USA, enjoying a weekly change of scenery that has kept her surprisingly satisfied. One of the youngest attendees flew in from India where she spent the past four months working in youth development; she spoke to me wistfully of the broadening chasm between herself and her childhood friends, who all grew up in NYC, have fast-track jobs, substantial disposable income and a preoccupation with fashion and celebrity. The last two attendees (one of whom married a Moldovan who has joined her here in the States) are working in food services and finance, respectively, with avid avocations (salsa dancing, wine-making, animal husbandry) which they’ve prioritized over careers.

Such a mixed lot,varied ethnic and socioeconomic origins, ranging in age from 27 to 65, hailing from eight states and two continents. The probability of us all meeting – much less becoming close friends – outside of Peace Corps is pretty much nil. And that, in the end, is the legacy of Peace Corps service: possibilities increase exponentially. What I found so compelling being in their company once again was finding automatic re-entry into that space of open horizons, optimistic buoyancy and a dearth of fear that defines Peace Corps Volunteers, their enthusiasm for being alive now and eagerly anticipating what comes next infectious, intoxicating, and soul-satisfying. Not one of them hates where they’re at or what they’re doing; I spent 48 hours without encountering an ounce of bitterness, weariness, frustration, resignation or regret.

Just prior to my departure for Moldova happened upon a poem by Rumi, the 13th-century Persian jurist, Islamic scholar, theologian, and Sufi mystic. It resonated so strongly with me it became the eponymous genesis of this blog:

We must become ignorant of all that we have been taught

And be instead bewildered.

Run from what is profitable and comfortable.

If you drink those liqueurs

You will spill the spring waters of your real life.

Forget safety.  Live where you fear to live.

Destroy your reputation, be notorious.

I have tried prudent planning for long enough.

From now on I live mad.

At the time, my life of twenty-odd years had been upended: my husband and I had lost our jobs and we’d sold our home to avoid losing it, disposing of 95% of our material belongings in the process. We had been forced into circumstances that neither one of us would have voluntarily chosen, yet I was unaccountably thrilled by the experience. We had both been so unhappy for such a long, long time, but were too conditioned by routine and material comforts to risk making the changes that might ameliorate our misery. Peace Corps became my escape hatch, a stepping stone, a means of prudently planning a way to live mad. And, indeed, it served to destroy my professional reputation, at the very least, (one can’t take a lengthy break from HR administration and law without repercussions) and, in some ways, made me notorious, at least among my oldest friends and more conservative acquaintances who didn’t quite recognize this inexplicable compulsion to throw a perfectly respectful upper-middle class life out the window to go live in a developing country on a stipend. Why would I walk away from all I had worked so hard to accumulate, rather than buckle down and find a way to preserve it? Wasn’t I worried about the future, finding another professional position, affording a new house, purchasing another round of furniture and appliances, buying another car, increasing my retirement accounts? My husband and I were well into middle-age: this was not the time for a gap year. But those concerns were threadbare and meaningless to me – I was truly running from what was profitable and comfortable, for suddenly I recognized how such prosaic rewards had sapped my vitality and all that was fresh and astonishing from my day-to-day existence.

Now my running has returned me full circle and, this time, I have the opportunity to choose from exponential possibilities without having to extricate myself from a comfortable routine. While I was overseas, my husband made some risky changes of his own, relocating to a more affordable area of the country where he was able – after many scary months of unemployment – to secure a better paying position with a profitable company doing work that he loves. We are now living in a low-rent apartment, in a less-than-prestigious community, with the minimum of furniture, driving older-model cars. One choice? Hit the replay button: I could find another career-track job, which would enable us to purchase a new house (here, they’re about ¼ of the price of the median home in California,) upgrade to late-model cars, acquire again the latest appliances and electronic paraphernalia, eat out five times a week, expand our vacation and entertainment allowances, and put away even more money for that ambiguous someday when we’ll both retire. Indeed, we debated the pros and cons of reconstructing our old life but just can’t get around the blue elephant slumped in the room: for almost a decade, we were desperately unhappy playing that game. Once the novelty of having grown-up salaries and adult-sized furniture wore off, we discovered ourselves chest-deep in those mind-numbing, soul-sucking, energy-drains that financed our lifestyle, unable to pull ourselves out. Back then, we were waiting for retirement to legitimize our suffering. But now, having bottomed out involuntarily, why would we knowingly dive in again? At some level we understand that the choice to recreate what we’ve already done is trying to play catch-up, no longer with the Jones’s, who’ve since trounced us in the material sense, but with an ideal that was sold to us (and Americans in general, dare I say) about what it means to be successful and self-actualized.

I am hesitant to claim we have found a better alternative, but we are, at this point, willing to have less in order to experience more. Once we looked beyond the “need” to for us both to be remuneratively employed, we saw the possibility of improving our lives by investing my time, instead, in homemaking. Yep, you read that right: cooking, cleaning, washing, shopping – all that unacknowledged ‘women’s work’ that a whole generation of females has been beating back since the 60’s and 70’s and (some) are still fleeing today. Wait a minute – WHAT??? What would possess a college-educated professional capable of commanding a healthy income, especially one without small children at home, to relinquish her economic freedom and restrict herself to manual labor in a low-rent apartment in an anonymous suburb of Cincinnati? It seems antithetical to every single feminist standard I’d inhaled during my formative years. In fact, on the surface, it sort of resembles the lives of many Moldovan women I vaguely pitied while living in the village. Yet, at this moment, it seems the perfect employment of my time and energy. Living in Moldova, I found myself enjoying the morning walk to the piața or the local veggie market. I looked forward to cooking a nutritious, delicious meal for the evening. Doing wash, hanging it to dry in the sun and breeze outside, carefully folding it to press the creases in my pants and blouses – all gave me a subtle, but sweet pleasure. Sweeping the floor became a meditation, similar to raking sand in a Buddhist garden. My house was small and my needs were few – I spent a great deal of time staring out the window witnessing the seasons change. I felt peaceful and fulfilled in a way I had never managed to achieve in my American middle-class life. The prospect of returning to the pace and stressors of my stateside existence discomfited me (which contributed largely to my opting to stay a third year.) My work was minimal, yet satisfying. No one expected me to move mountains, run faster, jump further, fly higher, or prove my worth. I was heralded for showing up, participating, smiling, listening, sharing, caring. Moldova was the first time in my life beyond childhood that I felt comfortable having no driving ambition. I existed. And existence was satisfying.

Here’s the thing: my husband and I ARE middle-aged and no amount of money in the world is going to guarantee us a certain amount of breathing time to enjoy life. With his income sufficient to support the two of us and our material requirements few, I am free to attend to both homemaking and those time-consuming tasks – think standing in line at the DMV, comparing insurance policies, cashing in recycling, picking up prescriptions, waiting for repairmen, scheduling vehicle maintenance – that used to eat away at our free time or never get done. Either way, they were nagging necessities that provided little joy in accomplishment and left us both feeling constantly harried and dissatisfied. Couple that with jobs that were aggravating, deleterious, and seemingly designed to fail and it is no surprise that we turned to food and alcohol and technology as primary panaceas. Conversely, in opting for simplicity and parsimony, what we gain is more leisure time, healthier lifestyles, less stress, fewer arguments, and an increased ability to enjoy each other’s company. We are both happier and (naturally) more pleasant to be around.

I am hoping that all this new-found free time will lead to more productive creativity, that I will be present here and pushing pen across paper more than I have been in the last 6-7 months. If nothing else made apparent the difference between circumstances, the move from Moldova to the US surely stole away the hours that formulated the musings that I used to pour out here.

Luckily, an excerpt from yet another poem, this one by Mary Oliver, arrived to give me guidance for this next phase:

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it
.

I spent too way many years blindfolded, bored and complaining. I look forward to having time to pay attention, finding things astonishing, and writing all about it……

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.

Success?

My time in Moldova comes to an end in exactly two weeks. I’ve been busy packing suitcases to ship home; trekking overflow items to Peace Corps office for adoption by other volunteers; saying goodbye to friends and co-workers; visiting a variety of restaurants I had no idea existed here; solidifying plans for various journeys I’ll take in the next few months – in short, distracting myself from reflexively seeking to affirm that three years of service have generated some notable positive outcomes. In a word: success! A fellow M27 just sent me an email in which he observed that, though he left Moldova over a year ago, he has yet to reflect or even talk about his time in country. I understand perfectly; it is an experience that I did not imagine completely absorbing for years, maybe even decades. Perhaps it would coalesce into clarity only on my deathbed, I thought.

I was wrong. Because this:

 :I boarded a bus yesterday evening to go say goodbye to a couple of friends, a delightful couple with whom I made a memorable trip to Poland (you will always remember the people who walked beside you through Auschwitz.) I was pondering our respective next moves, marveling at the circumstances that brought us into each other’s orbit – them career State Department employees who routinely relocate to a different country every 2-3 years, me having made an impulsive leap out of 20+ years of suburban stasis – when I unwittingly sat down across from this guy pictured above. At first, he was reclining with his head back, eyes shut, legs stuck out straight, for all the world as if his seat was a poolside lounger. I assumed he was a commuter catching a quick nap on the way home. Caught in my reverie, I was barely taking in the cues: wet, mud stained trousers, oil-slicked hair, crispy, sunburned skin. I’ve been living here long enough that my surroundings have receded into a backdrop and no longer command the stage.

A couple of minutes into the ride, however, he reared up, gasping, and the abruptness of the movement caught my attention. At this point I was sitting directly across from him, our seats facing each other in that oddly forced intimacy so commonplace in Moldovan trolleys. Through a milky film that occluded both pupils, his eyes locked onto mine as if grasping for a fixed point on a distant horizon. Like a dashboard bobble, his head seemed only loosely connected to an insubstantial neck. He had a harelip and a badly running nose. His eyes kept shifted from my forehead to my nose, to my mouth, to my hair, then back to my eyes again, perhaps trying to integrate the disparate signals reaching his brain. Far inside those murky depths, I sensed a drowning intelligence, a mind still fighting to surface but destined to be overwhelmed, ultimately, by a raging sea. Then he pitched forward, clutched my hands and collapsed face first onto my lap. I could feel his snot penetrating my pants and the grit on his hands abrading mine.

“Nu, nu, nu,” I murmured softly, hoping not to attract attention. “Nyet.” I disentangled myself and crossed the aisle to another seat, whereupon he slid sideways into his own, sinking slowly, inexorably downward for the remainder of my journey.

I’ve encountered sufficient drunks to recognize the acidic stench of an alcohol stew; this man did not give off that smell. For the split second his face was buried in my crotch, I caught whiffs of grass and dirt and sweat and a distant, lingering memory of detergent from his shirt. No, he had the vague, un-sanitized aroma of the mentally ill or of someone, perhaps, in the final throes of a devastating illness.

It is in these situations when that worn-out, abused meme elbows its way to the forefront in my brain: What would Jesus do? Not because I’m a bible-thumping, holier-than-thou proselytizer, but because I find the model of Jesus’ life and his philosophy, even more so than Buddha’s or Mohammed’s or the Flying Spaghetti Monster’s, the ultimate ideal of human compassion, generosity, and unconditional love. As Stephen Colbert trenchantly observed:

If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.

Now, granted, I was riding a bus in Moldova, not the US, and I have no idea what this man’s economic circumstances might actually be, but you get the picture. For all my aspirations toward idealism in joining the Peace Corps – living a more compassionate and caring existence, crossing cultural divides and viewing the world from a different perspective, appreciating the ties that bind us as a global family, yadayadayada – my instinctive response to the “poor” and “needy” when they face plant in my privates is to distance myself, cut away, feign ignorance. Please don’t snot or grime me. I don’t see you.

Although he was no longer aware of me, my gaze kept shifting back to him, a lone, crumpled assemblage of bones among upright rows of briefcase-toting professionals, young women reflecting themselves in mobile phones, grandmothers in shapeless housedresses, fathers holding babies.  Draped over the seatback and hand pole in a submissive posture of degradation and vulnerability, despite being clothed in what may have been, even recently, business casual dress and buffed leather shoes. What was his story? What had happened to him between womb and trolleybus? Where were his people – his parents, or siblings, or school mates, or friends? How had he been reduced from chubby-cheeked toddler to desperate adult, riding an endless bus to avoid the rain?  How indiscriminate, blind, the hand of fate?

I thought of the kids I had worked with for two decades back in California, foster youths, wards of the state, removed from dangerous or apathetic parents, trailing burgeoning files of nasty diagnoses: paranoid personality disorder, schizophrenia, psychosis, borderline personality disorder, anti-social/psychopathic tendency, etc., all usually stemming from the post-traumatic stress rooted in the horrific conditions and experiences of their pasts. And all I could do was get up and change seats.

It slammed into me then, that unsought assessment of what my time here has been worth, catching me unaware, unprotected against the futility and sadness of the epiphany. It is, indeed, a very small world. Six thousand miles and an intervening ocean don’t alter the face of the poor or the needy. It’s only the excuses that change. Back in the US, I had traversed the familiar stages of many a social work career, descending from occasional bouts of disenchantment to a more constant, simmering disgruntlement before landing in the bubbling cauldron of seething disillusionment. I was mad at office politics and national politics, city government and non-profit boards; frustrated by the blatant materialism encouraged in our clients to distract them from the challenges of their circumstances; anguished by the generational abuse I stayed long enough to witness, deeply defensive about the pervasive obstacles I viewed as outside my control.

The notion of Peace Corps – overseas service, a change of scenery, escape from the whirlpool of my cynicism – became the saving grace to which I pinned my faltering notions of what ‘being the change’ I wanted to see in the world really meant. I was going to make a difference. Again, at last, finally.

But what truth  I finally allowed admission here – one not endemic to the Republic of Moldova, but to most nations and most people, and, most painfully, within myself.  In both the villages and the capital, during training and throughout an extended third year, among other PCVs and ex-pats who had come to serve the needy, through a slew of projects and initiatives that purport to foster sustainable change, I encountered a new cornucopia of excuses, reasons why we failed.  And I suddenly realized that there will forever be excuses, we have two thousand years’ worth of reasons why we fail, justifications for why one can’t fit that huge, hairy camel through that ridiculously microscopic needle’s eye.  How prostitute’s feet have been shown to carry disease.  And how impossible it is to throw the moneychangers from the temple once they’ve got the keys. After all, Jesus was a special case, right?  And – even though the United States has cast itself in the role of world savior, a “Christian” nation that touts the four gospels of freedom, equality, opportunity and democracy – it has it’s own citizens safety to prioritize and ensure, doesn’t it.  And surely I cannot not be blamed for avoiding potential contagions or possible threats to my personal integrity, can I?

Please. Scroll up. Read Colbert’s quote a second time.  Spend a sobering 15 minutes seriously pondering the tableau of humanity above, as I did on that bus ride last night to visit those lovely friends who pondered the piled luggage and shorn hair and abandoned eyeglasses and moldering shoes alongside me at Auschwitz. Who spent a solemn three minutes inside a gas chamber, wondering how it happened.

An hour after this experience I was wolfing down a tender brisket, fried okra, baked beans and mac-and-cheese, some of the definitive staples of America’s Southern hospitality. A day later, I’m still doing my damnedest to digest that gluttonous feast, to shut him out, close my eyes, file through the myriad reasons I’m not to blame. But damn if he doesn’t keep thrusting out an intruding hand, chipping away at the glow of my final days, calling into question every moment of the past three years.

Leaving me with just one word: Nyet.

Leaving Home to Find It, Once Again

Tatiana, one of cooks at the senior center where I live, stops me as I emerge from the laundry room. Her shy smile gleams in the dim corridor, her hands drift up out of the darkness, cradling a piping hot donut. The smell of them has been driving me crazy all morning as it wafts through the weekend-empty center, wreathing my apartment in the smell of yeasty goodness. My refrigerator is bare, victim of a busy workweek and a lazy proprietor; I haven’t had the motivation to get dressed yet, much less trudge to the market. Manna from heaven seals the deal: I am glad to be back home in Moldova.

For a few days, I’ll admit now, it was touch and go.

***

Back in July, the United States had welcomed me back with abundance, diversity, energy and climactic beauty. From the moment my plane touched down, the infusion began: a smorgasbord of food and ethnic restaurants; the physical presence of family and friends with the cornucopia of attendant emotions that reconnecting brings; late-model vehicles that at times, unbelievably, held me, alone; store aisles and city streets and national parks (national parks!) teeming with a vast display of the world’s heterogeneity; background noise that was comprehensible, be it radio, TV, elevator music, or the couple at the next table; and always, everywhere, people smiling, eyes connecting, greetings freely tossed between passersby, laughter shared in lines. I traveled to California, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and Ohio, touching down briefly in Chicago and DC; every single place felt like home.

Leaving was rough. Around the second week of September, when the end was in sight, a little pit of discontent nestled down behind my heart. I immediately began to stuff it full of trivial, idiosyncratic goodbyes – so long sidewalks; later labels written in English; bye-bye blasting shower heads; be seeing you housecats, ice cubes, parking lots, landscaping, yummy Greek yogurt – leaving as little room as possible for the murky, seeping melancholia of separation from the meaningful: husband, daughter, grandmother, parents, brothers, nieces and nephews, former colleagues and schoolmates and best friends forever: all the faces who hold my history, reflect my truths and anchor my memories.

When I had first landed in Orange County, my husband called me, his excitement pulsing through the telephone pinholes, raining down like little candy hearts onto my eardrums: “You’re on the same continent!” he raved. “I could walk to where you are!” Understand that at the time he was still 1,800 miles away in Cincinnati, Ohio. But they were land miles. In the event of a cataclysmic, world-altering event, theoretically, we could find each other. It was, in some deeply comforting, inexplicable way, exciting. But now, here I was about to put an ocean and the breadth of another continent between us.

I was casting off again…

***

Arriving back in Chișinău after 15 hours of flying, 7 time zone changes and no sleep wasn’t conducive to a good mood at the outset. But I am lucky to have friends outside of the PC community by this time, so thankfully I didn’t have to wrestle two suitcases and a backpack onto the airport rutiera or pay the exhorbitant taxi fee that is standard fare for foreigners, regardless if you speak the language. A wonderful couple attached to the US Embassy picked me up and we had a great dinner at one of the nicer restaurants catering to ex-pats, ennabling me to delay full re-entry for a couple more hours. After enduring the 30 minute bumper car traffic out of Chisinău into my village, then the cratered dusty road leading to my center, only to find the entry gate locked, however, all vestiges of America had sailed away. Despite three emails and a text notification sent during the preceding 24 hours, I had to initiate a series of relayed phone calls as we stood outside the gate in order to evoke a keyholder from the residential center to let me in.

Since moving to Moldova, I have made exactly seven trips outside its borders. This was the first time I didn’t feel welcomed home. Due to an agreement I made when I first moved in, periodically I must move out of my apartment in order to accommodate specific volunteers who have been friends of the center since its inception. During the nine weeks I was in the US these volunteers visited, so I had had to pack up all my belongings in bags and boxes prior to my departure. Upon my return this time, I was greeted by a bare mattress, gaping refrigerator and larder, empty hangers, and a thin film of dust on the counters. And, in a huge departure from the usual, Buddy and Little Sheba (the center’s dogs) had not bounded out to greet me when I came through the gate. I learned the next morning that they had been summarily eliminated, along with many of the village dogs, during a mysterious night of gunshots for which no has claimed responsibilty or been held accountable. It was all decidely depressing.

And to top it off, I had to hit the ground running. It takes a lot longer than 36 hours to recover from jet lag and seven time zone changes; unfortunately that was all that I had prior to having to embark on a whirlwind schedule of trainings, appoinments, meetings, and my new partnership with Novateca (more about that in another post.) I continued to want to fall asleep at 2:30 or 6:30 (PM) and awaken at 12:30 or 2:30 (AM.) It took eight days to fully unpack and at least ten days for a semblance of diurnal normalcy to find me again. I felt disoriented and uncharacteristically disconsolate, set adrift in a manner I’ve only experienced two or three times in this lifetime. There had been too much warmth and acceptance, conections and laughter, comfort and familiarity, control and convenience, to have it so quickly snatched away. This time there was not the excitement of the unknown to bouy me; the adventure had already been had. My fellow M27s have, for the most part, moved on – to graduate school, extended travel, career track jobs, marriage and babies. My footsteps echo in a hollow space.

***

But let’s not end on such a somber note. Today was the first day since I’ve returned that has been totally mine. I had nowhere to be and nothing I had to accomplish. I got some laundry done and cooked up a pot of beans. I am writing on the awesome new laptop which my generous husband paid DHL a dear amount to deliver safely to me; I’ve spent the greater part of the day poking around her menus, caressing her touch screen, and courting her thinly veiled charms. The cool of autumn is gilding the leaves red and gold outside my window. It is 46 degrees and I’m beginning to don the layers (93 degrees in Huntington Beach today – are you kidding me???) And a sweet angel gifted me a homemade donut when I was hungry.  Already, again, this foreign life is settling in around me, becoming home once more.

Year three and counting….

 

Vorbiți limba engleza?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

Corpses, roses, red lipstick

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

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

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

***

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

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

Here’s how it goes*:

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

 

On Marriage

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’t want 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.

 

Imagine

A young child asks his mother to imagine that she is completely surrounded by tigers , with no weapon available, and nowhere to hide. What would she do?  The mother hesitates, ponders the question, and replies that she has no idea what she would do. The mother then asks the child what he would do, and he replies, “I would stop imagining.”

Tiger roar

I came across this enigmatic little tale in a book I am reading: “Stepping Out of Self- Deception: the Buddha’s Liberating Teaching of No-self” by Rodney Smith.  My mind keeps returning to its deceptive simplicity  –  how much of our fears, anxieties, worries, and dreads are born of our own imagination?   And what  is the imagination, when you get down to it?  Neurobiology creating worlds out of electrical impulses…including the very real impression that there is a ‘self’ capable of inputting,  managing, and analyzing the data.

I am also reading Diane Keaton’s memoir Then Again in which she traces the deterioration of both her parent’s mental capacities and abilities to maintain a ‘self’ – her father’s as a result of a brain tumor and her mother’s due to Alzheimer’s.  (When books I am reading cross-pollinate it always causes me to pay special attention.)  In both cases, their respective imaginations began to rule their experience and caused them (and all their loved ones) undue anguish.  Their “selves” were no longer at the wheel.  But then where does that self go? Who is driving?  What is experiencing the anguish? I tend to think of a mental illness as some sort of discreet demon – an evil imposter that wrenches control away from the proper owner of the brain/body.  As if the sane person was locked up in a cage in a corner of the mind, rattling the bars, screaming to get loose.  But that could really only be the case if we want to put our faith in some sort of entity akin to a soul.  Because increasingly, neuroscientists are affirming many of the basic tenets of Buddhism: the “self” we wear so deeply, clutch so strongly – that, in fact, is the essential definition of who/what “we’ are in this world –  is impossible to parse out from the machinations of the brain.

Meditators with years and years of experience tell us that they experience a consciousness unrelated to a sense of self; a deep, impersonal awareness that absorbs and dissipates the ego.  Does this awareness remain present, I wonder, lurking above it all when a person’s imagination runs haywire? Or take the comatose person lying in a bed for decades with no apparent signs of brain activity other than those maintaining the body – is this pure awareness present without the mitigating factor of imagination or self?

What happens when there is no “i” to stop imagining or to imagine at all?  I can’t imagine it….can you?