The space between my ears

Patience. Wait – scratch that.

I’m the king of swearing under my breath. I must be since I’m not aware of anyone else who swears under my breath. Also though I’m not so sure it’s under my breath so much as it’s out-loud. Things bother me. And I make it known.

If living for 2+ years in a foreign country while forgoing previously well-enjoyed creature comforts, operating in an twisting of language and imperceptible cultural differences and generally trying to survive where no one has ever heard the words “disc golf” is not a test of patience, then nothing is. In the Peace Corps your level of patience is going to be tried like nowhere else.

And when it gets to be too much, I tend to go off the deep end a little. I’m that guy locked in his home, emerging only for restocking of ice-cream and Coca-Cola—the two items that are the sole cure for all mental anguish. But don’t talk to me on those little journeys to shop. And God help you if you’re out of ice-cream.

“Ice-cream jok,” they say.

“Well when’s it going to arrive?”

“Tomorrow, God willing.”

Why does “tomorrow” always mean, “I have no clue but I need to say something.”

It’s the little things that flare up—restaurants and taxi drivers not having change, the lady at the yarn shop refusing to give you her number so you can check to see if they have a future need in stock, the repeated no shows of students adamant they want you to teach them English, the shop owner who won’t replace a bad product she just sold you.

That last one got me.

“This shop is bad!” I stood in the entrance way and called out to anyone who cared to look my way. “They sell bad products! Don’t buy anything from here! They lie to you!” I told several friends to avoid the shop. If there was a Kyrgyz version of Angie’s List (Aidai’s List? Can we get this started, Aidai?) you can be sure I’d leave negative feedback and push as many as I could away from the shop’s doors.

“I’ve rolled with it just a little too long,” I utter to myself, “I’m not letting them get away with it this time!” It turns out making such public spectacles generally only leads to either the embarrassment of the berated, the berater, or both. Patience isn’t really a thing we ever arrive at, I guess, but rather a progression in humility. (And oh how closely that is related to “humiliated.”)

IMG_6494Patiently waiting for “game on”

Seeing my pen had disappeared from my reserved seat on a mini-bus the other day I made an announcement to the general crowd that I had “lost my pen” and wondered if it had been seen. I then proceeded to ask a mother of a wandering child if she had it, when a young man in the back of the bus piped up and tossed me the pen. I thanked him and sat down. The end result was exactly what I wanted: I had my pen, he had confessed to a wrong, and everyone maintained their dignity.

Angry accusations are like cornering a tiger, and weak complacency is like sharpening its claws. Balancing both justice and your own desired outcome while laying the ground for future growth takes a lot of patience, a virtue often punched with holes that leaks all over the pavement whenever I need to take it out for a spin. It’s something learned along a continuum, and God willing, I’ll keep getting better.

I can’t help you. I’m sorry.

I was an idiot. That’s all I can say, really. I thought the world was brighter, thought the world was a place for only happiness and joy. But the world is broken and its buckled pavement is not meant for smooth rolling, only tripping through the dark.

It’s the eighth rising—the stilted ways in which we pick ourselves back up again to battle on against the ironies and absurdities heaving up through the road.

I dreamed I was a pebble, tumbling along in streams of others, once here, once there until I settled in a little pool and found that everyone trickles on in their own broken streams, now settling into soft earth, now cascading on to open waters across the blue.

I never thought I would settle here. But then I never could have expected any place in particular at 30 years. It’s just where life has gone. I’ve allowed it to take me, allowed myself to fall into the debts I feel I owe the world, pulling me in and covering me in dozens of little eddies of uncommitted obligation.

I’ll try to remember the world was not meant for regret but for fullness, that the only place happiness is found is in chosen joy, joy pulled from the ashes of a tortured and smoldering world, fresh it may seem from the ancient battle for the souls of its newly formed, walking upright, now bent upon the earth.

I’m sorry to everyone I thought needed to rely on me, as if I could provide some kind of saving grace or passageway to a better life. I’m sorry to all those whom I tried to convince that my own life was clinical or pure. If I’ve learned anything in the last two years, it’s that nothing has escaped corruption and vanity covers all, covers me and my little kingdom of swept dirt.

I’m just one drop in this fantastical ocean, broken fully again and again upon massive stones, tossed into the air where brilliant light has shone through every speck of my being, casting a rainbow of colors across the mist of a thousand others, equally broken upon the edges of life.

I’m not alone.

So I’ll climb out of bed. Make a phone call. Throw some discs. Forgive me for trying to be anything other than human. Forgive me for ignoring you, for withholding from you, for demanding to be your only option. I’m just one of many, needing to find my own little hexagonal comb of joy, to snuggle in sweet abandon, resting in the comfort of home, that place where I am known.

Cigarettes and Jesus

It’s currently 2am as I write this, here on this side of the world, in my little village, lost somewhere up the side of a mountain. I’ve got a couple more hours to go, or fewer, if I decide to cut my losses and go to bed.

This post is more personal than any of my previous posts to date. Not that each and every one doesn’t hold dear, personal meaning to me, nor that they’ve been somehow untrue. Just removed maybe. Or not quite as raw.

It’s been a stressful few months since returning from a quick Christmas visit back home. I’ve been stressed out by schedules and lack of schedules, ineffectiveness and having too much to do, relationships and the void that comes with being out here all alone. It seems to be everything or nothing at all.

My stress is both fueled by and relieved by those little moments in between drags, standing, as Alanis Morissette would put it, with “one hand in my pocket and the other one…flicking a cigarette.” It’s not the healthiest way to deal with these crushing feelings, but at least I’ve got a little paper stick to crush at the end of it.

It seems like the night is the only time to get anything done. I’m constantly interrupted by life—random text messages and phone calls from people all over the country, the neighbor kids wanting me to watch their dance routine, the constant tea breaks when trying to get applications and lesson plans written with counterparts, the horses coming home… And then I realize I’m out of water and have to walk down to the pump and wait in line, or I try to make a run to the outhouse and my landlord’s brother is walking by and needs to engage in a half hour chat about Islam and then my modem won’t connect to the internet and my e-mail won’t load and I’m hungry and need to think about making something to eat…

A lot of it would be normal interruptions anyone would face, but it seems like here I put in nine hours and then I come home to another full days worth of work.

And I’ve been stressed out by the looming decision to extend or not. There are so many pros to staying and so many cons to make me want to escape, and so many negatives about returning home now and so many good things to go home to. It’s stressful to try and put a weight on each of those and then watch as the scale swings in the winds of my emotions.

And then there’s Jesus. Sweet Jesus. Jealous Jesus. He’s been taking a bat to the idols in my inner worship hall recently, smashing to bits what I’ve so carefully constructed from glittery patches of worthless things, and that’s been good. Really good. I really don’t know why I don’t listen to him and rest in his presence more often. He’s always been so good to me and that whole advocating on my behalf thing before God…well, I’d be in a world of hurt without him. Life always goes better with him, even through the pain of giving up the things I’ve been using to get me through—resentment, lust, gossip, envy, laziness, and that inward “self bending in on the self,” as my namesake so eloquently put it.

Long, out-loud conversations seem to do the best. They move in a direction instead of spinning on that dwelling spiral, like a penny in those wide, yellow donation tubs that only seem to be found in malls, spinning, spinning forever it seems, hypnotizingly slow at first and then faster and faster until they hit the bottom of the bin with a trapping clunk.

Long conversations that last longer than the glow at the end of a penny cigarette—long conversations about this life here and just who it is I’m talking to, a God who has been at the moment of this feeling, at the inception of this temptation, at the end of this thought and walked on to the grave and stepped back out of it, yanking victory from the pit of hell and ascending to lead captives in his train. Captives like me. Oh! How lovely is your dwelling place!

Thank you Jesus for being here and being my friend.

image Psalm 121

Doubt and Survival in the Peace Corps

Peace Corps service is something that can rock you to the very core of your being and shake your innards until they’re so scrambled you can’t tell your dreams from your nightmares. Why did you even come here in the first place? What was it that told you it was a good idea to leave everything to do this? Is the world any better off for you having been here?

You wanted to do this so badly for so many years and now all you want to do is go home. This is about the point in your thought process when you find yourself at the bottom of that downward spiral called doubt.

I’m not talking about doubt’s healthier cousin, skepticism. A healthy dose of skepticism can be good for you. You should question your motives, probe your thoughts, consider your feelings and weigh the pros and cons when making any important decision. Here I’m talking deep-seeded, soul-searching gut-wrenching, ulcer-inducing doubt. Why am I here? What am I doing? Is any of it worth it? Is this where I want to continue to give two years of my life?

imageI’m suddenly doubting every past decision to eat meat

At no other point in my life have I wavered in so much doubt. I’ve agonized over staying or leaving and even talked to an Army recruiter on the phone a couple of times the first autumn I was here, willing to scratch my name off the line to sign it on another, even longer contract.

It comes and it goes like tides pulled by a giant orb above our heads, almost as sure as the moon herself. Now, fortunately, she’s sailing in another sky and with any luck this season of survival will last for awhile. Yet, having been here for almost two years, I have started to realize a pattern of strategies for riding out the high tide of doubt when it inevitably comes.

Stop asking so many questions

I never used to ask myself, “Am I doing enough?” As soon as that question crept into the back of my mind, things started to go downhill. At the end of any honest search to this question lies a resounding, “NO.” You could always do more, always reach more people, always start one more project. There is way more that needs to be done within a community and country than you can possibly do. Asking yourself this question is guaranteed to result in a crushing, soul-searching session sooner or later.

And if you start questioning the work you are able to accomplish, you will soon find yourself doubting the good when weighed against the sheer hopelessness of making a dent in the world’s problems. As long as you’re working and connecting with people, you’re doing some good here. Leave it at that.

Do what you like to do, and keep doing it. One of my volunteer friends has a great strategy of simply doing a level of work that he knows he can repeat again the next day, and the next, indefinitely. This way he knows he won’t burn out, but will continue to thrive in enjoyable, meaningful work.

Take care of yourself

You are going to be miserable help to everyone if you are miserable yourself. There’s a reason flight attendants remind you to put your own oxygen mask on before helping anyone else. You’re not very useful if you’re dead.

Take the time to eat right, exercise and drink water. One of the biggest boosts to motivation is simply drinking more water. Water helps brain function, helps you get more rest while you’re asleep and keeps you alert and in a better mood throughout the day. Peace Corps issues you a filter—make good use of it.

Don’t give up on your hobbies just because you’re in a different place. Continue to do them or share them with others if you want.

Seek to strengthen your relationship with God. Your need for Him will likely be felt more acutely here than anywhere else.

Relax and breathe. Seriously. You’ll forget to do this at multiple points of your service.

Find humor in just about everything

You are going to experience some tough things, and there is a time for being somber and mourning with those who mourn. But even people going through their darkest days don’t want to wallow continuously. There will be plenty to get angry at or upset about and those are appropriate reactions to injustice and suffering. But don’t stay there. You have to balance those emotions with the little quips and smiles because brooding is a sure onramp to the downward spiral highway of doubt with no exit sign in sight. If you’re here to make things better, enjoy doing it.

And if you need to go home, go home

There’s nothing worse than after carefully weighing your options, you choose to suffer. The world’s not going anywhere. There will be more volunteers, more projects and more opportunities. As much as it is a hit to the ego, at the end of the day we Peace Corps Volunteers are just one small slice of what’s going on in our communities and in the lives of our friends, co-workers, students and neighbors. They’re going to be fine, and so are you. You can continue to keep in touch or even come back sometime, if you like.

Why I still put up with the doubt

Having said that, I’m glad I’m working through the doubt and am continuing to decide to stay. If I hadn’t I would never have met Maksat, a great friend, business partner and inspiration to me and the future of Kyrgyzstan. I would never have met my best friend Nazgul or experienced first hand the struggles of those living in a small village, out of the reach of big city resources and opportunities. I also never would have gotten to share my own English teaching skills with as many teachers nor had the time to be an influence on other people’s lives. There are so many things you can’t learn or do unless you have the backing of months or years.

For me, I think of it like being married. When I do get married, I’m not going to just wake up one day, doubt my decision and take off. The doubts will be there and maybe for a long time. But you don’t get married so you can see how it goes, playing it day by day. You get married because you’ve decided, “I’ll love you forever.” I often have doubts about being in the Peace Corps and being in Kyrgyzstan. But I also know that I’ll love them forever. And that’s why I’m still here.

imageThis one’s going to last

Beef jerky and vodka do not make a good meal

Look. I’ve been there. And now my stomach is telling me where I’ve been. That place where the world tells you no matter how tight you tie the tourniquet, you can’t stop the bleeding.

It’s rough. It’s not just rough on your body. It’s rough on your soul. Where you wonder from where the strength for the last 9 months will come. Where you wonder if you should just extend indefinitely and save this world. Where you wonder why you thought beef jerky and vodka for a meal would help you in your pursuit.

Things are going so well. I have nothing to complain about. I’m an extremely lucky person. I just don’t know yet how to use that luck to my advantage rather than my detriment. I’m all soft in the middle. I said it. Pudgy.

The pursuit. Out among these lonely hills, living like we’re in grade school, living with parents of kindergarten-aged kids, living with no car, nowhere to go after dark, no one to hold as you slip off into another day. No one to tell you beef jerky and vodka for dinner is not a good idea.

Where do we find our salvation? How do we stay? When we could be on a plane tomorrow back home and just leave it all behind. It’s almost like survivor’s guilt. I can leave. Leave that family in the midst of their struggle; leave those friends to shorten the guest list by one; leave those students to work on their Halloween party alone. And they could, and they’d survive, and the world would continue to spin in God’s hands, the world over which Jesus looked and wept.

It’s preposterous. Preposterous to think that I’m in a position to save. Be? Yes. Exist? I can continue to do that, but not on a diet of beef jerky and vodka.

I’m here. I’m still here. Maybe that’s the success. Maybe that’s the hill I’ve conquered. Planted my flag. Watched it flap and flail in the wind. Stood looking up and seeing only sky, sky behind that flag, sky behind the colors I have fought so hard to preserve—the color of human.