About a month ago, I received a wonderful and completely unexpected piece of reader mail from a future PCV. Have I mentioned how much I love receiving reader mail? In case I haven’t: it’s quite possibly the best part of blogging. Blogging is much like writing into the abyss with only the hope of an occasional echo keeping you on track. Well, that and some of us just like to hear ourselves talk. But, I digress.
Daria is headed to Guatemala in October and wrote to talk about that part of pre-departure where you’re consumed with excitment and distracted with apprehension; feelings I know and remember vividly even after six months in country. Daria, who is a fellow Alaskan and therefore extremely good-looking and intelligent, has wanted to join Peace Corps since pre-high school and is now venturing off this fall as a health volunteer. With just 60 days until her deployment, her greatest challenge and lingering question is, “Just how do you get on the plane?” This question isn’t a matter of travel logistics, but rather, how does one leave it all behind?
Daria writes, “by accepting Peace Corps, you are essentially saying that the life you’ve built is no longer what you want, and that you want more.” She says that the idea of giving it all up (family, job, stable housing, etc.) is “empowering/exciting/fantastic, and also….terrifying.” But, in two months she has to make those first initial steps to her grandest adventure and get on the plane. It’s one of the few times during the Peace Corps process, from application to end of service, where you have to make deliberate choices about your future all on your own. You have to click “submit” on the application; you have to accept your invitation to service; you have to get on the plane; later, you have to choose whether or not to stay or ET (early terminate), but that’s a post for another week. These are all little moments during which, no matter how confident and sure you may feel, you have this little (or big) feeling of “well, here we go!” It’s a moment of choice, where your future and fate all lie in your own hands. We don’t have those moments very often in life. Most of the time we’re just swept along with the tide of likelihood and the momentum of our own efforts, all mixed with a splash of luck and chance. So, how do we approach those moments that are all ours?
It just so happens that I learned the Mambwe word “ukusipa” this week; to be brave. The convenience and speed of our American and 21st century culture doesn’t require of us much bravery or courage in our day to day lives, but these are words still actively part of African vocabulary. Gumption, strength, and a courageous heart are requirements here, and those without suffer the disappointed looks of their fellow country(wo)men. The essence of someone’s character and their ability to withstand life’s many adversities matter here in Zambia, and I think that is something I’ve come to love about Peace Corps. These 27 months of service distill volunteers down to their essentials; courage and bravery often float to the top. Like an RPCV told Daria and she has generously shared with me,”Peace Corps lets you cut your teeth on what you’re really made of.” And, I think it’s important to realize that joining the Peace Corps doesn’t mean you’re made of something dying to run away from where you’re from. Allow me to show you where I’m from:
Meet Homer, Alaska,
perhaps definitely the most beautiful place on Earth. I have long struggled between a lust for travel and adventure and leaving this incredible place over and over again. I mean, did you see that photo? It really does look like that, and I couldn’t possibly “run away” from my home. Despite my knonwn affection for my hometown, Daria’s point about people assuming you must be running from something isn’t foreign to me.
Before I left for my service, I visited my old high school to give a talk about Peace Corps to a civics class. While visiting in the main office, my old high school counselor asked me what I was up to these days. I proudly responded, “I’m joining the Peace Corps!” She said, “The Peace Corps? Trying to defer adulthood, huh?” I was taken aback (way, way back) by her comment. Later, another old high school advisor said, “Don’t join the Peace Corps. We need you here!” Again, I was stunned and a bit ashamed. Was I running away? Was it selfish of me to want to venture off to Africa for a few years of living on the US government’s dime? American culture teaches us that we should work diligently to build happy lives in our great country, and that great adventure and travel are for the foolhardy, the young, the retired, or the fabulously wealthy. I imagine these American values personified as a big middle-aged guy leaning back in a greasy recliner, smoking a cigar and asking, “What, ‘Merica ain’t good enough for you? You got a job and an apartment and a nice boy/girlfriend there. Watcha need to join the Peace Corps for?” Apparently my mental picture of America is someone out of the Godfather. Huh. Anyway.
I struggled with those questions for a long time, and finally came to the conclusion that people who join the Peace Corps (usually) aren’t running away from their homes and lives; rather, they are seeking out the greatest adventures to bring home with them and better the places they are from. I know with a certainty felt through to my bones that I will return to Homer a better person far more capable of bringing about change and seeking my own personal happiness than I would have been without my Peace Corps experience. Of course, that’s just me; but, I would wager (and experience tells me) that most RPCVs share similar feelings upon their return home.
Like Daria, getting on the plane seemed to me like the peak of an insurmountable but rapidly approaching mountain. I left home for Peace Corps on February 1st, 2014 from Homer bound for Philadelphia for staging and a few days later for Zambia. Leaving Homer meant waking up at home with my mom, eating a final breakfast together, hauling all my things out to the car, and making that slow drive down to the airport on a clear evening. All these final little steps, each tinged with their own minute good-bye. We checked me in together and the attendants took my bags, leaving us with just some happy/sad silence. What do you say to your loved ones before a big good-bye? We didn’t say much, but we chose words that mattered and I carry them with me every day during my service. They called my flight, and it was time to get on that dang plane. I was excited. I was terrified. I was exhausted from packing and the apprehension and the preparations for the numerous and lengthy flights ahead of me. You know those slow motion sequences in action movies where the audience is really meant to appreciate the details of the moment? The walk out to the plane was like that; frozen moments, smells, sounds, all permanentely etched in my mind as I embarked on my great adventure. All of it felt like such a big deal! But, nothing could have prepared me for turning around and seeing my mom, teary-eyed, pressing her nose and hands against the glass until my plane pulled away. I realized then that even those “big things” you do in life – where the choice and moment all comes down to you and a few heartbeats worth of time – are never really, truly done alone. For all the courage and bravery it took for me to get on that plane (and let me tell you, I broke my own mold with that short walk on the tarmac), it took infinitely more of it for my mom to watch me buckle in through the tiny oval windows.
So, back to Daria’s question: how do you get on the plane? Well, I suppose the best I can recommend is to dress for the occasion.
First, leave everything behind you don’t need. Don’t bring the wet blankets of other people’s expectations. Leave out the suffocating garments of unfinished business. Pack a light heart, and a clear, open mind.
Bring a layer of courage, a layer of determination, and a few extra pairs of resilience to wear underneath it all. Don’t worry; if you run out, you can always get more here. It can be expensive, but it’s of unmatched quality and a lifetime supply. Pack creativity, and be prepared that everything you own will wear through and thread-bare while you’re here.
As you approach the airport, pull on your pairs of adventure and your craving for the unknown. Give your favorite sets of love to those you are leaving behind, and accept new articles of support, faith, and admiration from those waving you good-bye.
On the plane, order a glass of pride and excitment. You’re doing it! Drink it down with a side of forgiveness for your weak moments, for your moments of fear, for your moments of “what if” and “is this right?” Those are standard issue garments for Peace Corps, and though they are uncomfortable at first, you’ll eventually grow out of them and find something that’s more your size. Maybe achievement will fit. Maybe you’ll find home in feelings of family, of giving yourself, of being a global citizen. Maybe your victory will be in just feeling more comfortable in your own skin.
No matter your style, your size, or your country of service, getting on the plane means dressing yourself for your journey, and choosing the right fit for you as you are right now. So as you pack, both mentally and physically, pack what you need and make sure to include a spare set of something to grow in to.
Safe flying. Fish on.
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