So, here you are…
No matter where you go, there you are. We know that, right? Of course, we do, and, funny how even though we know that, it doesn’t go away. Normally, you learn something and then it goes away. Maybe it gets absorbed and becomes a part of our DNA. But with this one, it keeps coming back, keeps turning up tapping me on the shoulder. There’s another way to hear that wisdom: so, I’m here.
This blog, I have to keep reminding myself, is meant to attempt to answer the question I posed when I was reading blogs and interviewing RPCVs, returned PC volunteers, and was never answered: what happens? How does a person go from being in the US, working, living, actually wrapped in the life of the US, whatever that means, and leave that life and become a PCV, living in another country and within (if that’s either actually desirable or possible) another culture. It’s complicated; that was never in question. I knew it would be complicated. Normal respect for another culture tells us that. We know instinctively that we are setting ourselves on a journey of depth. Because we knew that, it scared us and we wanted to learn more about it, arm ourselves, prepare ourselves however we could for it.
So, no matter where you go (or for however long, and however hard you try) there you are. That is still true. As with something that changes one’s life, like the loss of a limb, say, one realizes that from that point forward, one’s life will always be without that limb. That’s just the way it will be and that fact becomes absorbed in the basic fabric of that life. Got it. It just happens. But, unlike un-recallable, un-fixable things like a lost limb, the person you bring with you is changeable, fixable, if you will, or we hope it is. It’s part of why, for example, I signed up for the Peace Corps. I wanted to change. I recognized the need to change certain fairly fundamental aspects of myself so I could live more happily and constructively when I got back, if I got back. …And that was one of the risks/possibilities of entering the Peace Corps; maybe I won’t be going back, maybe I’ll be so changed, so woken up, so find my true calling (there’s always the risk of actually finding one’s true calling…like putting oneself in the path of possible adventure and actually encountering one, there is a real risk of getting what you dared/were foolish enough to ask for,) that you don’t go back, you stay and do the new thing you’ve found within yourself.
So this is, of course, no secret, a voyage within. Perhaps the most profound experiences of my life—and aspects of my life—is my mental illness, that misty aspect that drifts around me, distorting my sense of the world. On the positive side—and maybe there are only positive sides—I have learned, for example, that, under stress, I have to be even more vigilante about my diet. I must not have caffeine. I learned I must stay away from alcohol and have never played with it since I learned, and proved, that, but I also find that this experience brings emotions to the surface and being bi-polar is a flaw of the emotional system. I can be lying on my back in bed in the early morning, my usual think time, and find tears running down the sides of my face. Then I recognize a weight on my chest and, brought from my reverie, think: skewz-me, what the hell is this all about?
I usually do not get an answer and don’t turn one up probing the likely suspects. This is hard being here this way and doing what I am trying—seemingly unsuccessfully, so that might be a clue—to do. And I’m lonely, hungry in many ways, unable to understand anyone to any real depth due to persistent language ability deprivation (P-LAD for short, I think I’ll keep that one, every day, same shit, can’t understand a thing anybody’s saying to me, gotten so it doesn’t even tire me out any more) the things one should expect being an older volunteer in a world 95% of which is all of and about younger people, people in their early 20’s mostly, being excluded from the social aspects that have always been at least available to me if not easy, all of that and probably more. So, like living without that limb, I blot the tears on the edge of the sheet, note the question mark shaped wet spots, wonder if they’ll make faint, white salt question marks, and get up. Maybe I’ll find an answer, maybe I won’t; life is full of mysteries; here’s another one; get in line, buddy. Being busy does chase away whatever that was all about. Get busy.
Sometimes I see myself in the movies. It’s just a flash recognition, shorter than a deja vue, there I am in the movies; I am living a George Carlin Monologue. I am too smart for my own fucking good while being nowhere near smart enough to have that be of any actual use to me. The monologue is complete with the foul language. I renew my age old resolution to strike out the foul language.
Touch deprivation. Some stand-up comedian could do an hour and a half about touch deprivation…in America? In a heart-beat. And there is so much sincerity and believed-in deprivation here in a Peace Corps service that stand-up comedians, with my sense of humor, anyway, could make of it a career. This is so funny it’s sad and so sad it’s funny. From another report: “Lost? Sure, there were times when I didn’t know where I was for several months, but I was never lost.” I’m not lost.
I think that I have never been “in love.” I look out and I turn back to feel what I am feeling. What’s there? I pause for that reflection or inspection. I feel something but I don’t know what it is. I am always feeling something. Feelings swirl through me. I am here bathed in them. Sometimes they almost carry me off. Is any of that love? Hard to tell. Knowing me, I doubt it. I have to deal with that because I think love is one of the things up for inspection here in a PC service. It’s being stretched and pulled and pushed and prodded to see what it really is for each of us. I think it’s different for each of us, and because I can’t know about anyone else’s, I am concentrating on my own. That’s appropriate. These are my problems, this is the ‘there you are’ part of no matter where you go…the who, even if the why and how are forever out of reach.
I had some crushes when I was in junior high. And 6th grade. I wanted to go to the dance with this girl. 6th grade? How old are you? 11. Debbie Griffin. My god. Maybe the first and maybe the last. And I knew even then that this was dangerous stuff and I’d better keep clear of it, not let it out of control. No, she didn’t go to the dance with me. I’ll blame it on her. What the hell. She’s my age, not that irresistible 11 year old who was moving to California so couldn’t go (and wouldn’t have I dare say, in any case, I was hardly a prize and she was a red-headed doll, prettiest girl in the class and maybe the smartest.) She’s almost precisely my age give or take a few, now unimportant months, she’s 63 and, as a wise friend said of women his age, she must now look more or less like my grandmother. And she’s had her kids and a career and is retired to play with her grand kids in comfort somewhere and is most probably as wise as my grandmother, which leaves me way behind. I don’t know much and I am here to learn something more about that. I am still growing up.
It is possible that the ability to love is genetically encoded, or maybe it’s hardwired in in those first critical years. Whatever it is, I seem to be without it or some critical aspect of it. Or, there’s another possibility, that being that I am so guarded and have become so tough or callused that love has no power over me. When in a storm, it’s hard to recognize subtle differences in it. If love is pain and mental illness is pain all over the place, then what’s the difference between this pain and another? For the longest time no way I could tell and say, oh, this pain is from love; that’s different and should be treated differently. It all hurt and I got used to that being the reality and got over it, the roar subsided into the elevator music of life, the pain dulled and blended and maybe I lost some of the finer points along the way. I am capable of loving someone and then cutting her free out of my own stubbornness and just living with the pain, absorbing it like someone living without that limb, like I have lived with my fused ankle.
…Like stopping smoking; it’s easy: you just decide that from this moment on you will not smoke, no matter what. It’s that simple. The hurt is just a part of who you are. Do not look for relief. It’s not there. Just relax, accept it, get to know it, it’s going to be with you from now on and it will become your friend, you’ll see. It’s easy. And with the smoking, the urge to smoke drifted away after a few years and was replace with pain whenever cigarette smoke comes to my nose. It actually hurts my sinuses. It’s painful. I don’t know if an ex-smoker has ever told you that before. And I encourage that pain, deliberately. I encourage my distaste for cigarette smoke b/c the other option is to like it and be attracted to it, or might be, and that’s enough for me to ask that those I know to have patience with this flaw in my character. Been there, cured myself, don’t ever, ever want to go back. That has a cost. Call it a scar.
But the hard part and the easy part is making that decision, getting off the fence and just accepting the whatever-happens-from-now-on decision that cigarettes are in the past, period. It’s really simple, and, given that this is just a matter of how much pain you can handle, you decide to see it through to the end no matter what and stop smoking. …And then it’s easy, so amazingly easy. It just is. It’s a new you. A real change in who you are (if not in who you think you are…and that difference is a subject for another post, and it sure applies to me.) So, at least in that sense, no matter where you go, there you are, is not necessarily cast in stone. You can change who you are.
I stopped smoking cigarettes, in college. I had to leave my living group (I was a Delta Tau Delta fraternity member) and all the privileges therein—it was especially hard to leave the girls, the parties, the highs, the sex—and I had to change many of my friends and a lot of other stuff that one might put on the pain side, but, there is an interesting thing about pain that I think everyone knows though they might not like to hear or remember it: the mind forgets pain. It makes a choice and emphasizes what feels or felt good, and pain, though perhaps even the greater experience in both time and extent, is left to fade until it’s a theoretical awareness, a “yeah, there must have been pain in there, too, but I can’t really recall it now.”
It took me 40 + years to get over the smoking dreams. Anybody tell you about the smoking dreams? You’ve heard of school dreams, when you’re in school and you haven’t done your homework or studied for the test you barely remember was scheduled for today? “Smoking dreams” are like that. For me they go like this: I’m in a social situation—often in a diner with my girlfriend, and some other kids, some older, are there and I am feeling out-classed or otherwise uncomfortable and out of place, with no way to be cool and with nothing to do with my hands and I light up a cigarette. I don’t know where it comes from, maybe I go through the familiar ritual of putting coins in the cigarette machine and pulling the knob, Marlboros or Winstons, hear the ka-chung sound and the double clunk of the pack falling to me, and then smacking the pack authoritatively on the table top and peeling aside the cellophane wrapping, then the foil and tapping one out, the earthy, clean, rich smell of the tobacco filling my awareness, the air around me) and then everything’s okay, I am in control…and at the same instant I realize that I will never be alright again without a cigarette and that I am, again, hooked. It’s been about 10 years since I had one of those dreams. They just stopped happening. Now that’s a powerful habit. That’s a drug of note. It plagued the better part of an entire life and I only smoked for a few years in my late teens and early twenties. I think I stopped when I was 20, started when I was 18 or 19, stopped many times: during the summer so I could surf, during wrestling season, soccer, started again during the first round of exams of any semester in Engineering school. You need a good reason to stop. Health is too abstract, especially for a rebellious youth (that’s a redundant phrase…and that’s why tobacco companies target the young.) My reason was that I wanted to smell fresh air again. When you’re smoking you never smell fresh air. Fresh air is a human right, it is life, the life of everything. I wanted that back. I still think that’s a good reason.