Smiles and Struggles: The Home Stretch, Looking Back, and Looking Forward

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I began this post in the traditional format, as another edition of 3 Smiles and A Struggle. Within a couple of minutes of starting to write, I realized that something about it felt a little off this time around.

We are starting to get the question now: “How do you feel about your Peace Corps service ending?”

This question can best be addressed by realizing that at this point, there are a lot of smiles and struggles that are flip-flopping between being one or the other, depending on the day-let’s get real…the moment. Most of the big-picture smiles and struggles right now – of which there are quite a few- can be broken down into three general temporal categories: past, present, and future. Easy right?

Let’s talk about the present first:

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We are in home stretch of Peace Corps service.

Along with just regular, everyday stuff, I am currently wearing the following ‘professional’ hats, the same ones I have been wearing all year and some all of last year : 8th grade English Teacher, ‘Homeroom’ Teacher to one class of 8th graders, Adult English Club co-facilitator, Primary School library co-facilitator, REDES girls group co-facilitator, English tutor, potential 9th grade English teacher for the next couple months…

I smile right now because:

  • I realize how much I love having a varied work schedule.
  • I am doing what I came here to do and I feel like my efforts, energy, and frustrations have been worth it.
  • Time spent in this variety of settings is time spent with a huge variety of people that have been the most important part of my time in Moz.
  • Being busy pulls me into the present, forces me to focus on now, and doesn’t allow too much time for mulling over what’s coming.
  • I am documenting this important time in life.
  • I share this all with my lovely husband.
  • I am daydreaming about upcoming adventures.

I struggle because:

  • All of those hats come off on November 24, the day classes end and we leave Mapinhane.
  • The fact that all the hats will soon come off means spending a great deal of time and energy right now tying up loose ends and finding a way to feel satisfied with how I leave things.
  • This chunk of time serves as a slow and final goodbye to the work and people that have been my day-to-day for 2 years.
  • So much is happening that I hardly have a moment to even realize what is happening, or pause and actively take it in.
  • I am struggling to articulate things.
  • I worry not only about myself, but equally about my lovely husband during this transition.
  • This is the final phase of this particular rich and adventurous time in life.

Part of this home stretch period of service also brings a natural tendency to start looking back, noticing slowly what has happened in these two years, and reflecting.

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I am sure that all PCV’s (Peace Corps Volunteers) and RPCV’s (Returned Peace Corps Volunteers) would agree: making it through these 27 months is a big personal accomplishment that probably did not come easily, as well as an extremely meaningful personal experience. As we begin the process of closing our service, I can begin to reflect a bit on some of the general, and universal, smiles and struggles of Peace Corps service.

By the time Peace Corps service ends, a PCV can smile because they have:

  • Lived within a culture that is not their own and, therefore, can never be fully understood by said PCV, as culture is the thing ingrained in us since birth and dictates…..99% of what happens in a place, in my opinion, whether obvious or hidden, big or small.
  •  Learned a new language, and learned to express themselves in that language, work in that language, yell angrily in that language, joke in that language. And maybe even learned to love that language a little bit.
  • Done solid work in an environment flush with foreign norms, behaviors, thoughts, actions, languages, processes, and expectations.
  • Become familiar with the shadowy parts of their own internal environment.
  • Become familiar with which personal tendencies, habits, worries, etc. are a product of cultural context (common example: ‘I used to constantly feel guilty about the food I ate when I lived in the States. Here, I never feel that way.’) and which things are traits that stick no matter the cultural context, and are therefore the fabric of someone’s true self, and not a product of their context or surroundings.
  • Been deeply affected by their country of service.
  • And, more satisfying than all of the above, formed relationships that are the glue that holds this whole experience together.

The struggle is that by the time a PCV is at this point in service they might be realizing that:

  • That foreign culture, while still not fully understood like their own, has become familiar, comfortable, and normal in all its idiosyncracies.
  • They may not have many opportunities to speak that foreign language at home. They put a lot of time and effort into learning it and speaking it works their brains in a nice way. Hearing, usually, more than one foreign language being spoken around them at any moment gives their surroundings a rich texture. And, NOT understanding everything that’s being said at all moments has become familiar and freeing. For this, the foreign language (s) will be missed.
  • All their solid work could potentially a) turn to dust b) be the only opportunity they ever have to do this type of work c) yield many benefits that said PCV may never see or enjoy.
  • They have to find a way to turn the intangible, meaningful aspects of their service into an answer to the question, “How was it?”
  • They will most likely never again see most of the people that they have formed strong relationships with.

Alright, we’ve covered what’s happening now. We’ve talked very generally and objectively of what’s happened these past two years. So, I’m sure it comes as no surprise that a big part of this home stretch includes looking forward, figuring out next steps, containing excitement for what’s to come, and anticipating how this impending change might feel.

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When I look forward, I smile when I see:

  • My family
  • Travel and outdoor adventures
  • New work opportunites
  • My own transportation
  • A clean, private bathroom. A clean, private bathroom. A clean, private bathroom.
  • Food
  • Running water
  • Snow
  • Libraries
  • Anonymity and privacy
  • Not being asked for things every day: the eggs I just bought, the skirt I am wearing, the money in my wallet

I’ll stop there and tell you that recently, instead of counting sheep to fall asleep, I count Things That I Am Excited About In America.

That being said, when I look forward, I struggle when I see:

  • How disconnected we have become from the day to day lives of our families- and vice versa- and how many big things have changed at home.
  • How disconnected we have become from our home culture.
  • How nonsensical certain things in our country seem to have become.
  • The ugly sides of an individualistic culture: the part that says having doesn’t mean giving, and the loneliness that can come with relative anonymity.
  • The high level of expectations as to what should be accomplished daily in our home country.
  • Visions of the cereal aisle at the grocery store.
  • Temperature readings below 60  degrees Farenheit.

My struggles when looking forward are informed by close friends that are Returned Peace Corps Volunteers. The biggest struggle in looking forward comes from knowing that it is expected that you should feel normal in your home culture when you return because you grew up in it, but it won’t feel normal for a bit because of the new lens through which you are looking at it.

All new experiences- big or small- change a human’s overall perspective, or lens, through which they look at the world; my mom recently told me that since moving into a house that uses well water it drives her nuts when people waste water by leaving it running.

What Peace Corps feels like is two years of continually, metaphorically moving to a house that uses well water. [Read: life change/new experience].

What I predict as the biggest struggle of coming home is that it will feel like the water is always left running. [Read: uncomfortable re-adaptation after realizing that life change/new experience has caused perspective shift toward previously accepted behavior or norm].

Whether we are looking at the past, the present, or the future, there are guaranteed to be plenty of smiles and struggles, as always.

So, how do I feel about Peace Corps service ending?

I feel too rushed, and also impatient. I feel anxious, and excited. I feel nervous, and ready. I feel unfinished, and accomplished. I feel energized, and worn out. I feel vulnerable, and strong.

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