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.

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

Liz Does Relationships (and the world-traveling modern female)

Alright you all, I’m about to go down on the dirty.  No, I’m not going to give explicit details from my own personal life (uh, yeah right), but I am going to try to collect and present my observations on love (and lust) for the world traveler in some sort of coherent and meaningful way (if I fail, which is probable, let’s call it well-intentioned ramblings from the Road).

Doesn't it kind of look like she wants to get away?

As far as personal stories go, I will admit to this, that I ended up sacrificing a five year relationship with a great guy to satisfy my own wanderlust.  And I also can say that I believe I made the right decision.  Follow your dreams, or you’ll live to regret it, right?  That’s the adage, and if current pop culture has anything to say (and they’re always saying something), then eventually you’ll end up with both the dream career with the dream partner.   Boy as hopeful as I would like to be, the cynic in me says “not always the case.”

Let’s take the world traveling female, for example (sorry, boys, I’m not going to attempt to write your experiences, and sorry, ladies, because I will attempt to write–perhaps generalize–yours).  At this juncture in my life (I love the word ‘juncture’), I do not foresee “settling down” anywhere in the near future.  And YET! I hold on to the assumption that I will find a partner and be able to have a family–One Day.  But, biologically speaking, I should probably be at least considering that “one day” might come too late and I may find myself ready for the whole family-caboodle, but sterile and ALONE.  After all, as this article from ABC News states,

By the time a woman hits 30, nearly all of her ovarian eggs are gone for good, according to a new study that says women who put off childbearing for too long could have difficulty ever conceiving.

The study published by the University of St. Andrews and Edinburgh University in Scotland found that women have lost 90 percent of their eggs by the time they are 30 years old, and only have about 3 percent remaining by the time they are 40.

And as I am about to turn 26, and wasn’t even planning on beginning to think about having a baby until I was well into my 30s, it looks like I just may be fucked (or maybe I should be getting fucked that is).  I recently had a conversation with a friend, a fellow world traveler but male, who expressed many of my own beliefs about this whole “settling down and having a family” thing.  He said that, basically, he doesn’t feel that marriage is necessary if two people love and are committed to each other, and he’s all for traveling and living the “ex-pat” life.  Men, however, can have children so long as they’re cranking the stuff out (which can be well into their seventies and beyond), do not have to physically carry the baby to term (or breast feed, or feel bloated and fat), and for some reason women tend to go for the older man (even I have been known to have a few hopeless crushes on the balding, bespectacled 40+-somethings), meaning they have it easier if they want to “have it all.”

Even if we are to put the whole fertility issue aside (because seriously what better way to get into a guy’s pants than to harp on and on about your biological clock?) there’s the whole logistics of it all.  My current short-term plans (let’s say five years) involve me moving around A LOT, and we’re talking a series of trans-continental moves.  What are the odds of finding someone who would be willing to drop everything and come along for the ride?  Even a fellow wanderer, who lives for travel, may have a different location in mind.  And, from personal experience, long-distance relationships are straining, and sometimes unsatisfying (if the distance and time apart are significant).  One of the reasons why my long-distance relationship ended was simply that neither of us were getting enough of the benefits of being in a relationship to stay in it (and both of us too poor for visits to be an option).  There is only so much intimacy one can transmit through the satellite projections of two cellular phones (that is how they work, right?) and the unfeeling Times New Roman, black letters on a white screen, achievable through email.   We physically need touch.  So, that leaves us with only one answer…

PROMISCUITY!  (Just kidding, take a breath, Mom.)  But seriously, let’s consider this for a moment.  Now, I consider myself a modern feminist.  I would like to fancy myself capable of throwing out the old, tired, traditional image of “Boy meets Girl; Boy dates Girl; Boy marries Girl; and Boy and Girl live happily ever after with 2.1 kids, white picket fence, and a mortgage,” for a newer, hipper image!  An image that screams, “I don’t need anybody!”  Picture it, a young woman moving around, independent but not alone, lovers all over the world, not ONE BIG LOVE, but many, passionate love affairs.  This lady is cool, in every sense of the word.  If she decides she wants to be a parent, she makes it happen (hello sperm bank/willing participant)–no strings attached!  She can do it all, and all on her own.  The elusive, ‘uncatchable’ female.  Do I want to be this woman?  HELL, yes!  I would LOVE to be that independent and strong, but if I’m to be brutally honest with myself (and you poor readers who made the mistake of clicking on this link), it’s not what I really want.

I’d like to “One Day” find a guy willing to be my partner, one who wants the same things in life, and willing to shoulder some of the burden.  I believe a healthy relationship is when two people join together and commit to be honest with each other, have fun together, support each other, whose mere presence inspires each to be their best possible self, and who are moving in the same direction.  I also believe, that if the time comes that they must go separate ways, they should be able to say “I love the person that you are, and I will cherish our memories together forever; however, it’s not working out anymore, and I wish you the best.”  There doesn’t have to be drama or jealousy because love isn’t about ownership; two people can be together while maintaining their identity and freedom.

Okay, so I’ve talked myself into a mess.  I have no more answers than when I started this post, and in fact, feel a bit more confused.  I do know because of a recent experience, that as much as I love being independent and on my own (and the pride of knowing that I can thrive by myself), I actually miss having someone to hold me, talk to me, and that fun that comes from slowly opening yourself up to someone and they to you.  As my girl Tracy Chapman says, “I don’t want no one to squeeze me; they might take away my life; I just want someone to hold me and rock me through the night.”  For now, anyway, and maybe One Day just might come…