Peace Corps Part Deux!

Dear Guinea,

Is it too soon to say, “I love you?”  Because I kind of think I …might.  How’s that for commitment? 

But can you really blame me?  Don’t play the fool, Guinea, you know you’ve been doing your letter best this whole time to persuade me of your affection.  Strutting your bright colors and vivid smiles; greeting me on the streets with genuine affection shining in your eyes.  Don’t tell me you do that for all the new guests, it just might break my heart, but that’s just your kind nature.  All the more to admire.  Tell me you really mean it -that your languages will soon be gliding off my tongue and your people will accept me as Sister.  I sort of liked you from the moment I awoke.  The night I arrived I was pummeled by your humid, dripping, heat; the two days of intermittent sleep made me wobbily and dizzy, but perhaps I really was swooning.  Yours is a rough and rugged beauty of someone who knows how to work and who’s nature shines through.  No, but that morning, that morning when I was greeted with a bean sandwich–a delicacy I knew, but somehow you made it your own.  Well, I kind of felt at home.

So here’s to us!  Here’s to you and me and nine beautiful months of projects, accomplishments, and friendship.

Yours,

Elizabeth

You know when you plan something for the future, part of you kind of thinks it won’t actually happen?  I do.  Every time.  I somehow convince myself that time will sort of bend and keep me perpetually preparing.  When I was 12, I heard of the Peace Corps.  I told myself I was going to do Peace Corps.  I told everyone I knew I was going to do Peace Corps.  And then last year…I did Peace Corps.  Not only did the time come, but, more surprisingly, it went!

I never really figured out what I wanted to be when I grew up.  When I was really little, I was going to be a singer.  Like, a really famous singer.  I was going to do duets with Eric Clapton–that kind of singer, okay?  Well, one problem with that:  My biggest fear of all is singing in front of other people.  My throat closes up, and the throat plays a pretty big role in singing, for all of you non-singers.  So, okay, not so much a professional singer, but a doctor.  Yes, a doctor.  The problem?  I faint.  I faint a lot.  The sight of something that belongs in the body outside of the body; or the sight of anything that should never be in a body, in a body, well, I collapse on the ground.  As far as I know, doctors need to be conscious to be truly effective.  So that’s out.  Lawyer?  There we go!  Non-profit lawyer.  But, man, the bureaucracy!  The burn out.  The student debt!  Yeah, that’s out.

I always just assumed, took for granted really, that the next step would reveal itself to me “in the Peace Corps.”  Like it was some kind of magical realm where I would discover myself, or to be honest, I would be transformed into the person I wish I was.  And that didn’t really happen.  Not in Cameroon.  Don’t get me wrong, I grew so much.  I’m so much more the person I want to be because of my life in Cameroon, but I still felt rather directionless, as if so many possibilities felt so tangible, so desirable.  If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you may remember my Tell All post right before my Close of Service, Liz: Full Frontal.  It was a very honest self-evaluation of my service.  I admitted to not measuring up to my ideal, of making mistakes, of not risking enough, while at the same time being everything I could at that time.  Well, on Friday, this Friday, I’m moving to Guinea.   I’m doing Peace Corps, again, as a Response Volunteer for 9 months.  I know that this experience is completely different from my first two years with Peace Corps; my expectations are realistic, and yet, my hopes, well, they’re limitless.

Perhaps part of me is seeing this as my second chance.  My second chance to be and do something amazing, but older, wiser, learned, to hit the ground running and fully allow myself to integrate.  I commit, this time, to hand over myself to my new culture completely.  I feel so ready this time in a way that I couldn’t have been before to let down the walls that I have cemented around myself for so long.

I’m also sort of freaking out.  But that’s okay.

I have a friend who is moving to China today.  I’m reading her blog posts and her Facebook statuses and I’m so happy to know I’m not really alone in these feelings.  Our experiences are different, but I bet our anxieties are rather similar.  It’s nice to have a sense of companionship, even if it’s just in your head, to get you on that plane.

I met a new friend last week.  I really opened up to him, and he said, “You know, Liz, seeing you online with your adventures and the things you’ve done gives you an image of fearlessness, but talking with you in person shows a more vulnerable side.”  I was really opening myself up and showing my fears, my anxieties, that are constant, believe me.  Pretty much anyone who has spent time with me in person knows that I have really bad vertigo, but like to hike–even if it means having three panic attacks on my way down a mountain and yet will jump out of an airplane with hardly a second thought.  You can ask my friends, I was cool as a cucumber.  It’s very paradoxical, or maybe I’m just crazy.

I get so scared of doing things.  It’s not as bad as it was when I was younger and felt nauseated about going to school every morning, afraid of making a fool of myself, afraid of getting in trouble, afraid of…being noticed.  But inside there’s this really intense need to see what else is out there.  Need to know what I don’t know.  Need to feel, touch, smell, taste it, live it.  I’m not entirely sure if it’s a healthy need, but it’s my need, and it’s stronger than any amount of fear or any Vagus nerve reaction, so this is my life.  Right now.

I listened to a really great story this morning from The Moth called “A Crushing Connection”.  In it, the guy, this adventurous guy who hikes and climbs mountains and roughs it in the woods all over the world to fulfill this need to connect with life, gets trapped beneath a gigantic boulder.  His legs are crushed and he can’t move.  His hiking partner goes for a search party, leaving him alone for over 24 hours to contemplate his lot.  He describes feeling angry at himself, asking himself why?  Why isn’t life at home enough?  Sitting at home and playing Xbox, watching the game with his mates, why isn’t that enough for him?  Oh yeah, that connection, the need to connect.  And, trapped under a rock in a river bed, he found himself pretty connected.  He didn’t lose his conviction and goes on to be very adventurous.  I loved listening to this story because I ask myself those questions all the time.  When I’m about to leave my home and family and friends to move to a country I’ve never been, with people I’ve never met, over and over again, I ask myself, why?  When I’m having a panic attack at the top of a mountain in Cameroon because the fog has set in and we’re not exactly following the path we came up, and my guy friend has to hold my shaking hand the entire way down, I ask myself, why?  When I’m face to face with hippos, wondering if this is how it ends, I ask myself, why, Liz, why?  Why did you put yourself in this situation, why isn’t the option of not doing these things enough?  Can’t you just get a job and sit still for awhile?  Well, it’s that need.  Seems like after a few months, that little, tiny whisper of a new adventure tickles my mind, then becomes more concrete, more colorful, with time, becomes real, becomes a plan, becomes a plane ticket to leave on Friday.

I’m going back into the Peace Corps on Friday.  My 12 year-old self is ecstatic, again.  I’m going back to Africa.  I’m one step closer to my future, my life.  And that woman I always wanted to be?  I’m already her.

Update

So I just wanted to update on what is going on with my Peace Corps Response assignment. As you know from my previous post, my passport was lost in the mail….Well, about a week ago, I got some surprising information: It was delivered to my recruiter successfully! How, you may ask? Magic! I don’t know, I’m not questioning it. I’ve opted to leave at the end of October. Once I made peace with my departure date being pushed back, I signed up for an open house at a grad program I’m interested in. I’ll be going to Baltimore and visiting DC for a few days on October 14. I had already booked my flight before my passport was found, so I just felt it was better this way.

I am super pumped for my visit! I’ve got an action-packed week planned out. I’ll be meeting a ton of interesting people, finding out more information about this grad program (and hopefully making a positive impression), a tour of DC on a Segway, and a tour of the White House, plus general sight-seeing and catching up with Peace Corps friends in the area.

I don’t want to jump the gun, but I think I have figured out my career. What? I’m telling you, if my passport hadn’t been lost, I don’t know if I would have realized where my life is going. We’ll see how this visit goes, but it just feels right.

The program is a Masters in Public Policy, and I’m interested in concentrating in education policy. I feel like my life has always been on this path, I just wasn’t aware of it until now. It makes perfect sense as I am a strong advocate for education, yet was never really seriously interested in teaching as a lifetime career. I understand that classroom experience is vital, and wouldn’t you know that I’ve been working on applying to Teach for America ever since I got back. It was something that interested me, and now it seems to make sense why I was drawn to this. Granted, TFA is extremely competitive, so I know that realistically it is not a sure bet, but I’m going to work hard and see what happens. I’m also interested in the JET program, among other opportunities. My TFA recruiter is extremely friendly, energetic, and helpful in pointing me in the right direction. I’ll be researching education issues in depth the next few months, and eager to do so. Education reform is a deeply complex issue, and I see my role for the next few years completely as student: here to observe and learn how the system works–or is meant to work, and NOT as a reformer. I have no expectations, even after completing my MPP, of going in and changing the American education system because I know that I won’t be ready for that.

Liz’s Religious Experience

Talk about getting controversial.  I’m gonna do it.  I’m laying it all out there…well, most of it anyway.  I feel like this post ought to come with a disclaimer, so here it is:  DISCLAIMER:  The views expressed in this post are mine and mine alone.  Please read with an open mind.  I in no way am writing this post to try to change anybody’s opinion or belief systems, and I ask you the same courtesy.  I am merely attempting to explain my own beliefs and how I have come to them.  I have deep respect for a person’s right to believe and worship (or not worship) in any manner they feel comfortable with, so long as it harms no one else in the process.
I feel like writing this post because I’ve heard many comments from friends and people I know that I feel are misconceptions about people who identify as agnostic, and, particularly, atheist.  I’ve heard that these people are lost; these people are sinners; these people are going to hell; and that this philosophy is devoid of hope and….yes, faith.

Have you heard comedienne Julia Sweeney’s “Letting Go of God?”  If you’re up for it, I highly recommend it.  She does a great job articulating her beliefs and I find myself agreeing with a lot, though, not all, of what she says.  It’s humorous and personal and extremely brave.  (I will embed the first part of the 13-part video I found on Youtube at the bottom of the page).

I will begin at the beginning of my story, and my origin is quite literally my mom.  I will preface by saying that my mom is a free spirit.  She went to the College of Life.  She has explored many, many different religions in her lifetime, searching for God…for that religious experience I think we’ve all looked for at some time in our lives.  Well, I happened to be born at the time that my mother was exploring the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  I am not going into that now, believe me, that is a website all unto its own.  (And here is one Jehovah’s Witness Recovery)

So here I was growing up in a religion that is very exclusive in nature.  I felt completely alienated from my peers.  The word “worldly” was an adjective used to describe bad people who sinned.  Being “worldly” was quite frankly the worst thing you could be called.  Ironic, considering my current life.  As a JW, even to question the existence of God or the tenants of the Church (I still have a hard time referring to JW’s as a “church”) silently in your mind was a sin that God could hear–and it counted against you.  I grew up thinking for sure that God hated me, which is a waste because I was a pretty great kid.

Eventually my family did leave the JW for a variety of reasons.  If you are interested, I am happy to share with you more details in a private message.  Feel free to email me.  It took me several years before I felt completely comfortable in my new free skin.  In fact, we didn’t celebrate holidays or birthdays for another five years after leaving the church, the beliefs were so ingrained in us.  But eventually we did.  I became a person who celebrated holidays, but did not go to church.  I considered myself a Christian at the time, but had no community.  Eventually my mom joined the Catholic church and about a year or two later I followed in her footsteps.  I mainly admit that I was drawn to the Catholic prayers, the symbols, the saints, and the sense of community.  To this day Catholicism has a special place in my heart.

I enjoyed their process of conversion.  RCIA was fun and intellectual for me, a place to talk and question and share experiences.  I have to admit, though, that subconsciously I think the Catholic church was my church of choice because I grew up in a very small Irish Catholic community.  Most of my friends in elementary school were Catholic.  I watched them go to Catechism every Wednesday.  To a young girl in a small town (think population 600), my world was the Jehovah’s Witnesses and everybody else, and the “everybody else” I was exposed to those first few years were Catholics.  I was curious.  I wanted to belong to that group.  I practiced Catholicism for about a year, trying to separate my worship from my very strong viewpoints that directly contradict Catholic doctrine, trying to rationalize the differences.  Eventually, I stopped going.  RCIA was over, I was moving around a lot studying one semester in Chicago and one semester in Paris, I was nervous to go to a new church on my own, and I just couldn’t rationalize any longer.  I support gay marriage and gay people.  I believe women are equal to men.  I believe in family planning and birth spacing.  Just to name a few.  And to get right down to the heart of the matter, I cannot justify that there is one right religion–not when so many other religions exist and most belief systems are dependent on what part of the world you are born.  This is a huge predicament, not just to continue calling myself Catholic, but to call myself Christian.  So I stopped going to church, stopped praying, and called myself an agnostic without much thought to it.

My senior year of college, I had some good, deep conversations with a few friends that got me thinking more seriously about my beliefs.  Around the same time, the Des Moines Area of Transportation got some heat because they had allowed a local group, Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers, to put up an ad on one of their buses.  The ad was simple.  It read:  “Don’t believe in God?  You are not alone,” and had a link to their website.  Some people were outraged.  One woman refused to drive the bus, a few people refused to ride it, etc.  DART reacted by taking down the ad.  This turned out to be premature.  A lot of people, myself included, inundated the Des Moines Register, DART, and the Governor (who made a negative comment regarding the ad supporting the decision to remove it) with emails and letters insisting that the ad go back up.  It was not offensive and was a matter of free speech.  In the end most people supported the ad, or at least the right for the group to buy ad space, which included Christian and other religious groups.  The ad went back up.

Initially, I got involved because I felt that removing the ad was a clear violation of freedom of speech.  But while I was campaigning I, as Julia Sweeney calls it, “put on the atheist-glasses” and looked around–just a quick glance, ready to tear the glasses off and go back to my believing ways if my world started to fall apart.  What surprised me the most, however, was how beautiful the world was with those glasses on.  The world didn’t seem scary or lacking meaning.  If anything, the mere fact of our existence, without a creator or plan felt more magical to me.  I mean think about the odds of a speck of dust turning into a planet of many, spaced in just the right distance from a star to create life, and that life slowly evolving to create me, with my personality, my quirks, my ability love, laugh, and feel pain!  It’s astronomical!  I was in love.  I was at peace.  I had that religious experience I had been looking for when I was a little girl reading Bible stories, a young woman beginning to celebrate her birthday for the first time, a college student sitting in a class aptly titled “The Meaning of Life.”

At that point, I went all gung-ho atheist.  I joined Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers, I went to the Midwest Freethinkers convention in Nebraska with my then boyfriend where I was a hit.  The members loved hearing my unique experience as a former Jehovah’s Witness.  I enjoyed myself.  But I couldn’t help but notice something.

The members gave talks about how closed-minded “those Christians” were.  There were a lot of jokes that were honestly quite disrespectful and offensive.  I merrily laughed at a few and self-consciously looked down through others.  I think this was just part of separating ourselves from who we used to be.  To make fun of our old beliefs in order to make peace with our new beliefs.  Changing paradigms like this is extremely challenging, scary, and takes time to truly accept.  But now I look back and clearly see that I was not being as open minded as I thought I was.

For a couple years I wore my atheist glasses with pride, staying caught up with PZ Myer’s blog (one that I still enjoy).  But more recently I have gone back to identifying as agnostic.  Why?  Because I cannot say that there is or isn’t a god, or God, or a creator, or energy, or force, or great love, or what have you.  There very well could be.  And He might be fire and brimstone.  I may die and face my maker and be sent to hell for eternity.  Believe it or not, I’ve made peace with that.  I will not convert to a religion simply to cower to that “What if you’re wrong?” argument.  If that’s how it is, then I accept it.  I would not really want to live in heaven for an eternity in that reality anyway.  I’m sorry, but I’m just being honest.  It is also quite possible that the Hindus have it right, or the Muslims, or the Jews, or the Shinto; or it may be a more rounded, generalized theism; one where there is a god who goes by many names and as long as you lived your life the best you possibly could, you’re fine–or there might be nothing.  I might just die; my body going back into the soil, replenishing and feeding the earth and small organisms, returning the energy that I consumed while living.  And I think that that is truly beautiful.  The fact is, I don’t know.  And I’m okay with that.

Liz Gets Schooled

Hello, my lovelies.  How I’ve missed you!

I come with, what seems on the surface to be “bad”news.  A couple weeks ago I sealed my beloved Peace Corps Passport, a long with two copies of an application for a visa to Guinea, and four passport photos of yours truly into a UPS 2nd day air mail envelope and shipped off to DC in good faith.  On August 24, I did a routine search through my Spam folder just to see if anything important got sucked into there by mistake, and I see two emails from “UPS” with the headings “Your package cannot be delivered” and the like.  I panic, but when I open the email it becomes obvious to me that these emails are spam using my recent search history to bait me into opening them.  Still, worried, I went to the official UPS site and tracked my package and saw that all was well, and it would be delivered the next day.

I logged off and thought nothing more of it.  Until..

Last Thursday I was sitting in the waiting room of the travel clinic to get my Typhoid “booster” when I get a call from my Response Recruiter, Jill.  She is wondering if I’ve sent my Visa application.  My stomach drops.  Turns out my package was in fact lost.  Remember, my package was not lost when I received those bogus emails, but afterward, and yet here I was calling (harassing) UPS customer service centers all over kingdom-come.  I tracked it’s last known whereabouts in Davenport, Ia.  Kathy, the service rep, was simply heavenly.  I could hear her searching through their “overhead,” but for not.  She does assure me that she’ll do everything she can to find it.

I called Jill worrying that this was going to affect my chances of being a Response volunteer.  She assures me that I will still go, but may have to postpone my departure to the end of October.  I admit, I was very sad for two reasons.  I was so emotionally ready to be off again, and I loved that passport.  This was the passport that I backpacked across Africa.   All those lovely stamps!  I wanted to keep it as a souvenir.  I loved to proudly flip through those pages and look at all my visitor’s visas.  That was an accomplishment I hoped to share with my future children to plant that wanderlust seed in their hearts.  So please, if you are reading this, pray, wish on a star, think positive vibes, cast a spell, whatever that the passport is found and returned to me. Even if I don’t get it back in time to get the visa for Guinea to leave in September, I do hope to have it back.

Now I have begun to make peace with staying State-side for another month, however reluctantly.  I’m trying very hard to change my perspective on this, to be more positive and hopeful that this is all for the best.

Remember in my last post how I was trying to figure out how much to spill in this blog?  (If not, then scroll down).  Basically, I’ve begun to realize that as a writer, you have to make a conscious decision on how much you are willing to give away.  Personally, I would write my entire story, all thoughts, sins, and snarky comments for you to judge, but when your life includes other people you have to be discrete.  My words can hurt them.  That being said, I’m going to try to write simply from my perspective, without crossing any boundaries or embarrassing anybody I care about.  Here goes.

This summer shall forever remain ingrained in my memory as “the Ex Files 2012.”  No, we’re not talking about science fiction, as much as I love the genre.  All I will say that any guy from my past with whom I have held any sort of residual feeling came back into my life and then very promptly became completely unavailable to me.  I tried to maintain active friendships with them, but lines were blurred and feelings were confused.  And now geographically as well as emotionally, they are completely out, for the time being.  It literally happened in such a methodical way that it cannot be a coincidence.  While emotionally exhausting for me to have to say my final goodbyes, it has also been very cleansing.  It is like Life/the Universe/Whom-or-What-Ever has been cleaning house in my heart, making room for something (or someone) truly wonderful so that I can dedicate my whole self, free of baggage.  When I look on this transition in this way, I feel hopeful and…excited.  Possibilities.  Freedom.

Being in Cameroon on my own (which included replacing my shower and the pipes in my bathroom sink, taking care of rodents the cat brought in, and burying beloved kittens) showed me how strong I was.  I could live in a gigantic four-bedroom house in the middle of a foreign country alone, and thrive, even when I would wake up at 3am because of scary noises.  I could do it.  I also survived a dangerous encounter with three hippopotami, went sky diving, and continued to accomplish what I set out to do.  I can look back on these past few years with so much pride, and truly begin to believe in myself, as a person–not someone’s girlfriend or daughter or student, but as an adult.  This is huge.

I am determined to continue to work on myself.  I would love to try to eliminate jealousy, to love freely, to fight and argue in a loving way–without drudging up old resentments.  I’m not sure how, but I think Guinea is a part of this journey.  Also, as much as I was hoping to get out of Iowa and move on with this new, exciting adventure, I’m being given an opportunity to spend more time with my family (even if we’ve been getting on each other’s nerves), to work on my art, to prepare for applications that I am taking with me to Guinea for jobs/opportunities after this nine-month commitment.  The truth is, I don’t think I’ll “come home” again.  My parents are very welcoming when it comes to housing me during my “in between” times, but it’s time I find my own apartment in a new city and really start my life and shed these old dynamics.

So here I am given two gifts: the gift of a cleansed heart and the gift of time with my family.  I will not take these for granted.

People look for signs all the time.  My signs have been so obvious lately that even I can’t miss them.  Every single person I’ve talked to about my experiences have relished in my stories and insisted that I continue on this path.  I’ve been told by so many that I should put off settling down for having more adventures and that “all of that will come on its own time.”  I have to listen to them, these wise men and women.  Deep down inside, I have a slight gnawing fear that I am putting off settling down, have pushed away relationships to pursue a dream.  I’m scared that I will one day wake up and find myself alone, without family, too old to start one.  I think this fear comes from the conditioning we receive in this society to be coupled up.  While I am perfectly open to being in love and being a partner again, for now, at least, I’m content with what I have.  I just read a book called Singled Out by Bella DePaulo.  It was delightful and empowering, and really made me conscious to a lot of my own prejudices.  I highly recommend it.  I will think about doing a full review of it in another post.  But something I took away from it is that women have been taught to have this deep fear of “having it all,” and deep down believe it’s not possible.  It’s time we let go of that fear of future regret and just live as fully and lovely as possible.  I mean, how can you go wrong if you do this?  So, okay Universe, I trust you completely.

All in all, lessons learned:  Trust that the decisions you carefully made were the right ones.  Learn to let go–of resentments, jealousies, people, and yes, sometimes love.  You have to make room for good things to come into your life, and while this is painful, it will be entirely worthwhile.  And, finally, the UPS has way too many passports sitting around in their overhead that they evidently do not return to their owners.

Much love.

Yours, Liz

Mea Culpa

Sorry I have deserted you for so long. Believe me, it’s not because nothing has happened; everything has happened. I just couldn’t sit myself down to express it all. Seems daunting. So… I’m not even going to attempt it.

Since I’ve been gone I have:
Jumped out of an airplane
Traveled through 9 African countries
Met a hundred beautiful people
Finally visited my parents and family at home
Traveled to Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York City
Said goodbye to a beloved family pet
Finally ended two toxic chapters in my life
Received two job offers
Accepted one

I’m going back to the Peace Corps, like an old boomerang lover. Just kidding. But I am going back. I’m going to Guinea within the month, but only for 9 months this time. I’m very excited. I can’t help but notice that I am always going into the Peace Corps in September. Funny.

Well, I won’t get into much for now. I just hope to reignite the writing bug in me. I want to work on this thing a lot more. I have so much to say, so much to process. A lot of it, though, is rather private. Once I figure out a nice balance between closed-lipped and exhibitionism, you’ll see a lot more of me.