Tuesday, September 24, 2013

My Peace Corps Site is Not Mine

An interesting part of Peace Corps culture is that many volunteers refer to the sites where they live, and others’ sites, as though they belong to them – “my town” ;  “her village” ; “his city”. I remember reading a HuffPost editorial one night on my Tigo modem Internet that criticized volunteers for doing that, for pretending like we’re not sitting on the emergency ejection seat with parachute at the ready.

I was definitely one of those volunteers, and I remember thinking about it for approximately two seconds before dismissing it: “Okay. I get it. But I’m here. I know the people here. She doesn’t. I’m invested. She doesn’t get it.”

Leaving Guatemala nailed home one certain thing for me: the site where I lived was not my town.  I love that town. I poured two years of myself into the people I met there. But it’s not mine. On some level, I knew all this from the moment I moved there.  I was an outsider, and it took a while for people to get to know me. Walking on the streets, I could feel palpable discomfort from some people. I never did get to know everyone, and to some I was understandably representative of the systems that have oppressed many people in Guatemala.

Even so, if you had asked me at the time, I would have unhesitatingly called it my town. I experienced it daily in such a way. Getting smothered with love by my host siblings. Absorbing into the work flow of my host agency. My best friend, who I could count on any time of day for a laugh and a snack. The night my grandma passed away and two friends insisted I go out in the pouring rain so that they could buy me fried chicken. All of the people who showed so much kindness to me, who laughed with me, and who filled my life with meaning on a daily basis.

I'm not saying this is representative of all Peace Corps experiences; I speak for my experience alone. Yet I do think the Peace Corps culture of integration encourages people to consider their site to be a personal experience rather than a professional placement. The emotional isolation of the situation is another contributing factor. I had a strong instinct – perhaps better put as an emotional need – to identify with the people and places around me during the experience. It was part of my privilege as a wealthy US citizen to indulge that instinct despite significant racial and socioeconomic differences, to feel that in some way I belonged to the town.

So in that way I maintained cognitive dissonance about the privilege I had in the situation; foremost the ability to benefit from the experience of living there for two years, and then leave, on a plane, with a US passport, and not have to give a second thought to the people there and the structural challenges they face.  I tried to give more than I took, but in the so many intangible ways that the our actions ripple away, I'll never know whether I succeeded. I've always had the idea that I would find some way to stay involved with the town, especially with my closest friends if there is a way I can. There is nothing that forces me to do that, though.

And for the time being, I’m exercising that privilege. Somehow, despite the intensity of my feelings in the site where I lived, it was more than a year before I made a phone call back. My life is here, and though I’m constrained in certain ways, by family and economic opportunity, I mostly decide to be here.  I'm really looking forward to my first visit back this year, and I enjoy catching up with friends over Skype calls, instant messaging, the occasional phone call routed in Spanglish through my parent's house. Even so, it remains that I can choose when and how to bring my two years in Guatemala into my current life, if ever.  So no, my site is not mine, and never was.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Epilogue and Prologue

Hello, world!  I apologize for the absence. I suppose it’s natural the blog lagged, since I’m no longer in Peace Corps, but there’s still so much to say about those 27 months – so many experiences and people I want to tell you about.

I’m not sure why I thought that Peace Corps would be a discrete 27-month experience. This past year of adjustment has taught me almost just as much about myself and the world as my time in Guatemala did.

This spring I was quite busy finishing up my Peace Corps Master’s International work and teaching two lab sections. Winter was rather overwhelming this year, so at the moment I am soaking in the sun, enjoying softball season, and relishing the chance to get around by bike … also defending my Master’s research in a few short weeks (!).

Small miracles...
 I’m also really enjoying watching the potatoes I planted shoot up in the garden out back. They were planted from spuds that went to seed in my cabinet in December. My friends back in site would get a chuckle out of that; the municipality where I lived in Guatemala is famous for its potato production. After more than 200” of snow this winter and record snow pack, it’s so exciting and almost strange to see the world alive again.

In Guatemala everything seemed alive, too alive sometimes. For months afterward I couldn’t really bring myself to think about it. I had filled notebooks with ideas – in boring municipal meetings, in the cold evenings in my little cement house, in the cold mornings in our little cement office. I couldn’t bring myself to throw them out, but I couldn’t bring myself to think about them. So I brought them home, and buried them in a box.

After almost 16 months, it feels like time to pick them up again. I hope you’ll join me!

Oliver is also enjoying summer in the US!

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Homage to Grandparents

Today is the anniversary of a very special day; on this day a year ago, my grandma passed away. Surrounded by family and friends singing “Jesus Loves Me”, she opened her eyes and smiled. That was just the kind of person she was: she was going to go with a smile.

I was in Guatemala, with plans to be home for good in four days. I couldn’t imagine that we weren’t meant to see each other. She has always felt like a physical part of me.  From day one I was the “spitting image” of her, and I know she gave me more than genes: so much of my natural optimism, love for people, desire for kindness.

Over the past year, I've felt her presence so keenly: when I smile at a stranger; when I share something I’d like to hoard; when I let my cat on the table [she loved to spoil her dogs!]. Her passing has really made me cherish all of my grandparents and the role they’ve had in my life.

Here they are:

Gramom (far left) and Gramps (far right) are still around and active! Pop-pop (left) passed away in July 2010. I had a good 24 years with all of them, though, something for which I’m really grateful. They didn’t always color-coordinate their outfits, but the photo above was taken at Thanksgiving. Gramom always has enthusiastically festive outfits.

With them there were many zoo visits, many Cheetos, many back rubs and mall trips, games of pool and gin rummy, breakfasts on the patio, pool swims, bucketloads of Peanut Butter Captain Crunch, café lunches and holiday dinners together as a family. And hugs. So many hugs!

Thanks for everything, grandparents. Thanks for everything, Grams. You're always with us.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Overcoming the Habit of Fear

The more I read on neuroplasticity, the more I realize that everything, anything can become habit.  Confession: fear has become a habit for me. And along with the fear habit comes another habit: the habit of "no",  "no, I don't think so" ... and "oh, I don't know"...   

How did this become a habit? I'm fundamentally a "yes" person, but living in Guatemala involved risks that were new to me. I took to managing those risks with great discipline, living under strictly self-imposed rules: never let your guard down. never walk alone at night or in remote places. limit travel. keep your money close. All good ideas...

The problem was that once that fear habit got going, the thin line between reasonable caution and pessimism blurred. And in a challenging environment, the fear habit nourished other types of fear: of rejection, of failure. All things equal, I began to take fewer chances in general. I became less assertive. I sought fewer novel experiences. I didn't ask for things as much when I felt people would say no.  I didn't speak up as much when it might offend people. Fear and pessimism were good. I obeyed them, and they protected me.

Life here is very different, in a small rural city that has only seen two murders in the past 120 years. Regardless, my fear habit has persisted.  That's not to say that "yes" hasn't been inside me all along: it's just that "No" now speaks in a much louder and more convincing voice. 

I've realized that rather than protecting me, "no" is now just limiting my possibilities. I'm tired of it. I want "yes" to speak up much more. I believe that anything can be habit-forming, including "yes", but it takes time. You have to listen for that negative voice, and the things we're most accustomed to are often most hidden from us. Sometimes it helps a lot to push yourself into new surroundings, even if briefly, where you have to be conscious of yourself.

Maybe that was why I went rock climbing last night, for the first time since college. It was "yes" that got me there, but don't get me wrong: "no" was there, too, gripping me to the wall. 

I wasn't even a fourth of the way up a route and I was struggling. A nice red hand-hold tempted me from three feet away. Fear assured me: you're going to fall. "No" said: Don't try. The dull, familiar weight of pessimism was infuriating, and something sparked. I pushed off and leaped for the hold.

I took a massive fall, but that's entirely besides the point. It was the first time in more than three years that I've screamed "YES", when "no" was pulsing throughout my being. 

I know now that I'll get back on that wall. If I learn to climb it, it will be in series of similar falls and spurts. And when I fall, it will be against the echoes of a resounding "yes!"

I think it's time to make it a habit.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

How Peace Corps changed me

It's been almost a year now since I finished Peace Corps. Though I don't think I'll really have a clear perspective on its role in my life until much later, I can make some short-term reflections.

First of all, I made some amazing friends, and beautiful Oliver found his way to me. These are the sort of things that can never be computed into "what-ifs". I also have no regrets professionally: I gave my site all that I could, and I learned a lot about international development and environmental management in the process.

Individually, the experience was at times joyful and did change me in many ways that I had hoped:

(1) I'm much more aware of my own strengths and weaknesses. I thought I used to be, but a lot of things I was hiding from myself came out. 

(2) I learned what my own culture is. I realize that culture is internal to people, not something external to admire about them from afar, and I recognize the importance of approaching people with humility. 

(3)  I'm more dynamic, more comfortable in front of any group, and more assertive overall. This is especially true now, after having given improvised "charlas" in front of umpteenth captive Guatemalan audiences.

(4) My brain is way more analytical. I'm a bit of a dreamer by nature, but something about being in a foreign environment with so many challenges trained my brain to zone in on ideas, turn them over, rip them apart. I'm definitely more critical and "creative" in that way.

(5) I'm addicted to vegetables, and really not at all into processed foods any more. The experience really broke a lot of the addiction pathways for junk food in my brain. Which is nice!

A lot of people talk about Peace Corps as a personal growth experience. As they say, "What doesn't kill you..." though I don't think that's totally the case for everyone. Like many volunteers, I faced challenges that pushed me into a difficult place, and changed me in some ways I didn’t expect:

(1) I'm way less patient than I was before. I thought Peace Corps would make me crazy patient and flexible, but more often it just made me crazy. Like a muscle, you have to strengthen patience with carefully chosen loads, or you’ll sprain something.

(2) I'm more pessimistic or skeptical. I felt so constrained in my first 3-6 months that I sort of trained myself to assume many things weren't even worth trying, to accept that inertia. It's been great to recuperate my normal optimistic mindset.

(3) I don't remember "facts" as well as I used to. I forgot most of my technical schooling, not that calculus is particularly useful unless you're building rockets. It's interesting to be back in a place where having that knowledge is not only useful but also admirable.

There are also all the quirky little changes, some short term, like: I find it impossible to mix organic and inorganic trash. Styrofoam makes me angry. I felt really awkward in social situations in the US for a long time - how do you say hello, or ask someone for something, or say goodbye? I had a terrible time being close to on time for anything for a long while.

The Peace Corps experience testifies to the fantastic plasticity of our brains. I wish I'd realized at the time how habit-forming everyday life would be - how the rollercoaster of a new environment, a new culture, new languages, new food, social isolation, mental exhaustion, freedom, stress, and even boredom can lead to amazing changes in the brain… both wanted and unwanted. 

How about you? How has Peace Corps changed you or your loved ones?

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Spider and the Broom

It's been seven months since I've written and there are a lot of confused, joyful, stressful, perfect moments in that gap. For awhile I was busy adapting to being back in the US.  It takes a long time; maybe more so for me because a close family member passed away right before I came back. The process feels more complete now as I write up my Master's project -- every day the maps and data seem to chisel some new splinter of memory off into my new (old) life.

When my mind wanders to my experience in Guatemala, I think of sweeping the dusty corners of my house in my last days in town. Grandma had just passed away, and sweeping was a welcome respite from thinking.  There was one stairwell corner that had been particularly neglected, and in my sweep of the house I battered it hastily, sending a spider skittering out of her web and into a hole in the corner.

I remembered her then; that spider had lived there for nearly a year. In that moment my power to upend an entire existence with a thoughtless broom-sweep seemed really profound. I bore no malicious intention -- I had just come along doing what I thought I needed to do.

It was clear in that moment that we share more with the spider than I thought. Some days will be ours to tend our webs in peace, with the flies cursing us. Some days will be ours to scurry from the sweeper, cursing the broom, while the flies move on in peace. As we go about our business, we're all vulnerable to a variety of forces, and any appearance to the contrary is a question of scale and magnitude. While scale and magnitude are highly significant, I think a lot of the injustice in the world is born of denial of the simple reality that we are all vulnerable.

Some day I would like come back to this blog and fill in the substantial holes left here by my experience. I think in some ways I didn't do much justice to the general panorama of Peace Corps, or development, or especially the stories of the people I met in the highlands of Guatemala. For now I'll leave it at that, though: the spider and the broom.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Made it Back!

Today marks the three-week anniversary of my arrival back home to the US. After 27 months living in Guatemala, I landed on my parents' door-step (well, at their airport) with 85 lbs. of luggage and an adorable and thoroughly traumatized cat. None of this was really anywhere near as hard core as it may sound.


January 3, 2010...

Leaving Rochester for Washington, DC with 45 lbs of luggage. I apparently thought I was going on a two-year backpacking trip. Or wished I were.

April 4, 2012..

Same backpack. Pretty much everything else is different.

Luxurious car ride home. Oliver was just glad to be free after 13 hours inside a 10x20x10 in. mesh handbag.

If there's anything I learned in Peace Corps, it's to take adjustments slowly, so that's what I've been trying to do. Even so, the last three weeks have been a bit of a whirlwind: enjoying so many little luxuries, big emotional milestones like my grandma's memorial service, and getting married (err.. no worries, just the small civil prequel to the big celebration this summer), unpacking and packing back up to move to grad school, the two-day drive up here, unpacking, tracking down housewares all over town...

Truthfully I've only begun to adjust to my grandma's passing, to being back in a totally different culture and context and role, to living with another actual person with distinct needs and desires! (What's that all about?)

Most days I have moments of feeling incredibly blank, as though I can't remember who I am or what I'm doing, almost like a DVD that's skipping. Most days, though, I also catch glimmers of the wide open potential of the future I've imagined, and those glimmers remind me that I am me, here, taking the steps I have to toward that future.

I'm just keeping in mind the common wisdom in my site in Guatemala:

little by little.