July 5, 2010

I Still See a Flash

Yup, beginning with another song reference (Madrigals, Howie Day: I still see a flash / From the time I opened my eyes too wide...).  Concert withdrawal, worse than PCD!!!  (Post Concert Depression—not a Peace Corps acronym, for once!)  Anyway…

As you may have noticed, one of the recurring topics of my blogs, and indeed, one of the ongoing struggles for most Peace Corps Volunteers is the absurd emotional roller coaster that exists in day-to-day life.  As much as Peace Corps service is about serving your country and your host country community, it also entails a great deal of personal growth, and requires volunteers to really stretch ourselves to the limits; and from what I have heard from other volunteers, this struggle persists throughout the full two years of service—it doesn’t lessen, volunteers just become more accustomed to it.  (Indeed, I have heard from several RPCV’s [Returned Peace Corps Volunteers] that one of the challenges of returning to the States is re-learning what life is like WITHOUT daily mood swings, and feeling crazy for maintaining a single emotion for a duration of more than fifteen minutes!)  Though a great deal of the tumultuous emotional tremors of PC service are the result of internal battles, external events obviously have an enormous power as well, so even though the shaking is constant, some days are a 3 on the Richter scale, and others are higher. 

For me, last week was about a 10.  To begin with, my only sister got married last weekend—an event which I was devastated to miss, and was nearly the only thing that gave me any pause over accepting my invitation to serve.  Incredible low.  Then, Monday, I received my first care package, and managed to have a texting-conversation in real-time with one of my friends in the States (I LOVE YOU EILEEN!!!), while eating the Oreos she sent—incredible high.  (Accidentally finishing the box without realizing it—that stupid plastic cover makes it hard to see—so I didn’t even get to properly savor my last cookie, and realizing that it’d be months until I got another chance to eat an Oreo, definitely a low.  A parenthesized low because it shouldn’t be as important as my sister’s wedding or a care package/talking to a friend.  But I won’t lie.  It’s been haunting me for a few days now…)  A productive day at work, and calls from both of my parents.  Another amazing high.  Then, the next day, not one, but TWO letters (THANK YOU LINDSAY AND KATHERINE!!!!!!).  AMAZING. (Incidentally, EVERYONE who has sent me something, has something in the mail now…so keep an eye out!)  To top it off, I made a real Motswana friend and had a fun night “on the town” (see previous blog).

But just as I was thinking I had gotten over the whole “emotional phase” (this is among the worst things about the beginning of the Peace Corps roller coaster—you are still deluded enough to think the whole thing will pass)—SPLAT.  The next day, I had no care packages.  No letters.  No phone calls.  And no chance of either; why would my parents call me a day later, unless something bad had happened, and what are the odds that another care package or letter would arrive in such a short span of time?  Because of scheduling conflicts I wouldn’t be able to meet up with my new friend until next week.  The confidence I had built up at work was shot down, and I felt the internal sting of a few cultural clashes.  So just like that, I was back down.  (I realize that these lows may seem trivial compared to the significance of the highs, but, again, the cycle is partially internal and partially external—so a downward fluctuation in both at the same time has an exponential effect).

On Friday, with the permission of the Peace Corps, I made a trip to Maun for banking (money is important—can’t buy a bucket in a China shop with a credit card) and shopping (produce is sparse, if available at all, in Shakawe this time of year, and is somewhat necessary for a vegan).  It is not an easy trip to do in a day—6 hours each way on the bus—but as a new volunteer I am still in lockdown, and not permitted to spend the night outside of my village, except in extenuating circumstances, so 12 hours on a bus it is.  Fortunately, as most of you know, I have long been a fan of roadtrips, so I was actually looking forward to the commute. 

Whenever I travel, wherever I am, I always bring a book, and tell myself I’ll read it or pass the time by chatting with my neighbor.  And I usually do those things—in this instance, 12 hours is enough time to allow for completing multiple tasks—but honestly, I always ultimately find my gaze drifting out the window.  Hypnotized by the world passing beside me, watching the gradual change in landscape and vegetation, seeing the clouds form and dissolve on the horizon, and meditating on life.  For some reason, it is here, engrossed in the world around me, yet not really in it—hovering above it, moving through it, but somehow disentangled from my surroundings—that I usually find peace, resolutions to whatever issues have been troubling me.  Roadtrips and running have always been the two things that have given me solace—as though I must physically move forward in order to spiritually or psychologically do the same. 

(Ok, just an FYI, it’s about to turn REALLY hippy-dippy, so if that last phrase was a little over-the-top for you, turn back now and wait for the next blog, ‘cause it’s only going to get worse. Much, much worse.  Proceed with caution and consider yourself warned.)

So, that evening, as I sat on the bus, and felt the familiar forward motion of the car on my way home, my eyes lingered on each branch of each passing tree, and I patiently waited for the clarity that I knew would come to relieve me of my gloom.  But as the bus moved and I examined my surroundings, I only felt worse.  Yes there were trees—but they were not my trees.  I couldn’t tell you anything about them—would they change when the season changed?  If I saw a tree in the States, I could tell you whether it would shed it’s leaves or retain it’s needles.  Whether it was young or old.  Even whether it had rained recently, or was going through a dry spell.  But here, I know none of these things.  Yes, there was land, but it was not my brown, clay-covered land—just pale white sand, with no “ordinary” dirt in sight.  Yes there were birds, but they were not my birds.  If I saw a seagull or duck in the States, I would know it meant water nearby; I know that a crow is a scavenger bird, a woodpecker gets its food from trees, a hawk hunts for prey.  But here, these birds, though incredibly beautiful, mean nothing to me.  Why were all of their nests only on one side of the trees?  Do they migrate, or is Botswana their home?  Even the stars—oh, the beautiful stars—are not my own.  And that’s not just some poetic metaphor; I’m in the Southern Hemisphere,  so the constellations are all different.  Although I bought a star chart in the hopes that I will learn more about them, for the time being, even the very sky above me is foreign—no Big Dipper to guide me to the North Star.  Instead of finding comfort in the predictability of the world around me, the steady passing of the bus felt like it was taking me farther and farther away from, rather than bringing me home. 

So suddenly, I felt so small, so lonely, so isolated; acutely aware that I was sitting on a bus full of people, so different from myself in so many ways, riding in the dark through a world so far away and unlike anything that I am used to—I honestly wanted to cry.

But, as with most of life’s great epiphanies, it was then that it started to make sense.  Full of melancholy, I began to zone out, stare blankly, rather than focus on the world.  And as I shifted my view, I realized—really, it still kind of looked the same. Yes, the trees are different, and the dirt is different.  But they sit atop the same earth.  Yes, the birds are different, and the stars are different.  But they occupy the same sky.  Yes the people are different, but we are still people.  It was as though the differences were just an illusion, a different mask decorating the same face.

So I found myself presented with two profoundly different views, in nearly polar opposition, each rendering an entirely different experience of the world around me.  And yet it was so easy to shift focus between the two.  To a certain extent my view was of my choosing—but not entirely.  Try to take in the big picture, until the flash of a bird’s teal wing catches my eye as it swoops past and draws my attention to the immediate view.  Scrutinize each thornbush until my eyes lose focus and I find myself observing the scenery as a whole.  With the snap of a finger, the world can become an entirely different place.

Although this is clearly some manifestation of an obvious metaphor (“can’t see the forest through the trees”), I don’t think I’d ever felt it so clearly until that night.  And it really is the perfect metaphor for the fluctuation of my emotions right now.  Just as easily as these views oscillate so rapidly, so does my experience of the world—one minute, immersed in the differences, feeling alienated, alone, and confused; the next minute entranced by the bigger picture, connected to everyone and everything, a part of something greater. 

The thing is, upon really thinking about it, the emotional fluctuations aren’t actually that different in the States.  One common pitfall that I think many PCV’s have, myself very much included, is the tendency to idealize life in the States—surely EVERYTHING was easier there, right?  This is partly because since the struggles we face here are so different from the struggles most of us faced in America, it is easy to forget what the struggles we faced there were.  It is also partly because for many of us, the time prior to our departure WAS exceptionally good—we weren’t bogged down by many of the stresses of everyday life because we were about to leave and preoccupied with planning, daydreaming, and saying our bittersweet goodbyes.  It is also because over the course of the decades of our lives in the States, we have developed our own coping mechanisms, created our identities, and found our own little niche in the world.  In a strange way, joining the Peace Corps is almost like being re-born (not in a religious way, at all)—you begin as a child with what feel like absurd restrictions in PST, living with a host family, going to school, learning how to act and talk.  Then you go to site, still with a “curfew” (lockdown), and begin to experiment with making different friends, going different places, figuring out how to spend your time and what role to play in the world.  And eventually, (allegedly), you kind of figure it out.  (And then go back home and start all over—perhaps the greatest irony of Peace Corps service!).  But even as an adult—both in the States, and once you’ve reached metaphorical adulthood in the Peace Corps—there are still emotional hurdles, rational and irrational, triggered and entirely out of the blue.  It’s just that in the Peace Corps, these things are happening in an unfamiliar context, and without the comforts we have become accustomed to, so it feels scarier.  When my eyes would fixate on the small stuff in Seattle, at least I knew a pine needle was a pine needle and a Starbucks sign means “take this exit” (haha…ok, I wasn’t really a Startbucks fan, but so far I have found exactly five coffee places in all of Botswana, so it’s looing pretty good at the moment…).  Here, though, it’s hard not to be perpetually aware of just how far out of my element I am, so when life throws a little bump in the road, it feels a lot bigger.

In any event, I don’t really know how much this revelation will help me, but it was one of those moments where I felt things come together, and begin to make a little more sense, and it felt pretty good.

Or maybe it was just case of the road crazies…

(((((In an unrelated and totally personal note, it also got me thinking about why I in the past I had the natural tendency to connect with animals more quickly than people.  I think I tend to automatically focus on the thornbushes and pine needles—the small things.  And obviously, in the immediate sense, I’m pretty different from a dog, donkey, chicken, cow, etc.  Because those differences are so obvious, my natural assumption is that they will be different from me [obviously a cow goes “moo” and I say “Do you have any soy ice cream?”], so when I spend time with an animal, what sticks out to me is not the differences, but the similarities [we all feel hunger, we all feel pain, we all feel the need to communicate with others, etc.].  With people, on the other hand, in the immediate sense, we’re pretty similar, so my natural assumption is that they will be similar to me, and when I spend time with them, what stands out are their differences, which, as a child, made it feel difficult to relate, since, let’s face it, I am pretty different from a lot of people.  But as an adult, I slowly began to shift to the bigger picture view and acquired my love of people [and still of animals, of course], and an appreciation of the differences, because of just how much we do, in fact, share.  Unrelated, but one of those little moments where I made a little more sense out of my life, so I felt inclined to document it on the interwebs, and it’s my blog, so I can do whatever I want!!!))))))

**Also also, I feel compelled to quote another Howie song, so, and once again, it’s my blog and I’ll post if I want to!

Is it dark where you are?
Can you count the stars where you are?
Do you feel like you are
A thousand miles from home?
Are you lost where you are?
Can you find your way when you’re so far?
Do you fear where you are?
A thousand nights alone
Can we go too far to find what is waiting here?
A little fall from grace
On the longest night
Did we go too far to find what is waiting here?
We’ll take a little time
To open up again

-Longest Night, Howie Day

I know, totally not actually related to Peace Corps, but it still makes sense in this context, so whatever…Post-Concert Depression, people!!!)))

1 comment:

  1. "Roadtrips and running have always been the two things that have given me solace—as though I must physically move forward in order to spiritually or psychologically do the same."

    This is a beautiful quote and I think anyone can relate to this. Crazy, hippie origins aside... :)


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