Saturday, September 15, 2012

A Way of Life

Since returning home, I've spent most of my time frantically trying to "make adult life work" in America. Everyone said the transition from Peace Corps to America would be difficult. I think it's like adding apples to oranges: it doesn't work.

I told a woman recently of my evacuation from Guatemala,

"It's a long story," not wanting to indulge yet another person who wants to talk about violence in those "hispanic" countries.

"Oh! I bet it is violent. But, you know, it's just a different way of life down there." She said, nodding, clearly well-versed in the complex issues of Central American economies, illicit trade, historical trajectories of political and gang violence, deep-seeded cultural and religious beliefs, utterly failed transportation systems, public health nightmares, and the egoism of NGO and international aid interventions.

I couldn't hold back this time.

"A different way of life? What do you mean exactly? That these people choose to live in poverty and violence? This isn't a "way" any human being should have to live. Period." I replied, flatly.

Her lips pursed, eyes narrowed, and a short breath was drawn as she recalculated,

"Well, no it certainly isn't. So tell me, now that you've had all this experience and time off, what's your next step?"

I don't address this. I move forward and talk about other, less troubelsome things.

However flustered by this woman's deep self-centeredness I was, I later-on reflected on my ability to put her lack of perspective, well, into perspective. This is the reason, I thought to myself later that evening, why I took the leap to join the Peace Corps: I was tired of re-acting to my environment and I wanted to learn how to be in my environment, to see it for what it really is, to look at things from another perspective. And yes, I also wanted to be part of changing the world. I wanted to understand the world more fully as it actually is. I sought to question myself, fellow volunteers, and my host-countriy. I sought to make different choices.

Something I realized recently while stewing about this woman's comments, was that in all my blog posts, I have never conveyed the true reason I joined the Peace Corps to begin with. What I mean to say is: the real story. The day I decided to join.

I told this story just about a week ago, to my new employer. He, of course, asked why I joined. There is the stock response that I give to people that I don't know very well, and it involves a mix of overstated idealism, career-development, and foreign-language acquisition. He smiled when I gave a sigh that conveyed a sense of hopelessness: a sigh that said, "there is so much more to this story."

So he asked, "and the long version? I want to hear that story."

It is one of the most intimate stories I can think to tell, because it became a defining moment in my life. The day I decided to join was the day started becoming myself.

I hosted an RPCV in my house Junior year of college who was interviewing for medical and dental schools. He wore the look of a person so completely at peace, engaged in the world around him, passionate about his dreams, and inspiring beyond all belief. We spoke of his time in Africa. His voicemail message was in two languages; English, and a native African language. He spoke of his days in Africa as "defining," and "without rival." He wore a lot of flannel, I seem to remember. He grew up in Montana.

I had just moved into the house not two weeks ago before he arrived. I was still installing odds and ends, like a cheap wine rack I had acquired. I fiddled with the screw driver and became exasperated quickly. Without a second thought, I tossed the rack and mounting materials to the side and muttered to myself, "well, guess the wine is going in the pantry."

He looked up from whatever he was doing, puzzled, and told me, "Oh! Why don't we go next door and ask the neighboor for a drill. I can see what you're missing there, you need a drill."

The neighboor? I didn't know him. I wasn't planning on introducing myself. I expressed some hesitation before he stopped me.

"Come on. Lets go."

Two hours later, 3 friends made, multiple glasses of lemonade shared, and a 2nd-hand wine rack hanging proudly from my kitchen cabinet, we sat on the couch discussing Ayn Rand.


I laugh, now an RPCV myself, just how common this conversation would become. Everyone brings Atlas Shrugged or DFW or Bertrand Russel or something else equally ambitious to post with them. And we read them, and formulate many ideas about these works. Whatever good that's for.

It was the day my friend left that "it hit me" like a ton of bricks. Maybe I didn't necessarily want to go to Africa, or go to medical school, or read Atlas Shrugged, but I wanted to be like him. I wanted to face every situation in life as a beautiful question that had an answer so long as I was willing to seek it. I wanted to approach life as a continually evolving set of experiences, challenges and insights. No task or event in life is trivial, not even the installation of a wine-rack; you could make friends, share lemonade, change the direction of your life. I wanted to discover what I could be capable of doing.

Speaking of David Foster Wallace, I am now reminded of a blindingly beautiful analog in his Kenyon College commencment speech which went like this, "If you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down. Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that's capital-T True is how that you get to decide how you're gonna try to see it."

And I began that journey with the Peace Corps. No, I did not live up to my expectations all of the time. No, I did not save Guatemala, or master Spanish, or solve world hunger. But I tried. I tried, I tried, I tried. I thought and thought and thought. I questioned myself, other volunteers, many Guatemalans, and a new way of life that was never my own. I learned to be like a Buddhist monk in the midst of chicken-bus madness and community-organizing fiascos. I learned to trust in failure, because in it lie the keys to better thoughts and actions. I discovered that truly being means being full of grace, and that which is beautiful is everywhere. 

If you've read my blog, you know that I've come to concieve of an unwillingness to change as the biggest obstacle to "development" (a term I put in quotes because I dislike how often I feel it is abused, used to qualify false statements, or justify certain unsavory people and organizations).  Any academic or philosophical debate about improving health care, or sustainability or corruption ultimately boils down to: how willing are the individuals or groups to change their behaviors and actions? Do they see change is something "good" or "bad?" Which actors best catalyze change? If change does happen, is it always for everyone's benefit? Who can make decisions that affect change for a given outcome? I don't have the answers yet, but I have learned that the most powerful thing in life one has to affect change, something that can never be taken away no matter how poor, desolate, or weak, is the ability to choose your thoughts. Choose to put yourself in another's shoes. Choose to be kind. Choose to challenge the constant, drowning monologue inside your own head that puts you at the center of the universe. Choose to see life in everything.

I know that we all disappoint ourselves far too often. We dwell in the past, seek explanations from other people and places that aren't able to gift meaning to our struggles, and we justify our actions in the hopes of justifying ourselves. What I thank my friend, my Peace Corps experience, and the multitude of people along the way who have helped to shape me for, is for sharing with me the gift of a life made by choice. To choose is to be free.

Tomorrow, I will choose to call my loved ones; reconnect with the life I left in Guatemala and perhaps seek more ways in which I can integrate (note: word of deep resentment to all PCV's and calculus students alike) my two worlds. In the end, I thank Peace Corps for teaching me that it is how we choose to foster resilience in times adversity and choose actions which fill us and those around us with inspiration that make for a life well lived. Mil gracias por todo, mis queridos chapines y voluntarias de Cuerpo de Paz, llenas de gracia. Los quiero mucho con mi corazon completo.

Some of my favorite memories...

The bottle school's community mayor, who pulled over our truck to pick up trash. His idea, not mine. A beautiful thing.

 Learning Spanish. Teaching in Spanish. Getting laughed at in Spanish. Making jokes in Spanish. Attempting to inspire in Spanish. Loving Spanish.
 Being forced to wear an adult diaper over my clothes for a baby shower.
 Walks through fields. Hugs in fields. Love in fields.
                                                                 Mayan ceremonies
                                                                  Tortillas. Especially hers.
                                                  This beautiful and enchanting country...

1 comment:

  1. I am currently applying to the Peace Corps and it sounds like I'll be nominated to do youth development work in Guatemala. Your writing and this blog are beautiful and inspiring. I'd love to know how this story has progressed and where you are now.