Settling: Phase I

ChicagoAll I wanted was my bed, but it was a day away. That evening, I would be slumbering among foreign sheets and blankets in a hostel as favor to an old instructor but my body ached with disappointment and fatigue. It had been a lovely weekend in Minneapolis, but time had run out and I returned to Chicago for the dull drums of routine. My thoughts went into bully mode, pointing out all of my well-known flaws, as it does when I am too tired to fight them off. The morning would come without any comfort and resolution, forcing me to work without a clear disposition. All I wanted to go home.

Yet, as the train slowly crept into downtown Chicago, I was unsure of where exactly home is anymore.

During the weekend I had spent time with great people who seemed to have a strong sense of home. They were do-able, if not short, drives to family. They shared real houses with their spouses and intended to fill with dependents. The unknown didn’t seem to haunt them and they were simply happy with what they had.

I, though, wrestle with “what else” and have never been satisfied with just one home. There is the place that I am from and the place I live, but I want to collect homes as if souvenirs bought at gas stations off the interstate. I can pull them out one by one and use them as a reference to where I’ve been. Yet, there is great unrest in my collection. I miss the ones I had and put big exceptions into the ones to come while completely ignoring the present home.

DC wasn’t home. It was never intended to be a permanent place in my life, although I will always call upon fond memories when I think to my time in the nation’s capitol, as I do for Idaho.

Lesotho is home. It’s my African home, a place that now feels made up in daydreams of the life I wish I could have. Lesotho wasn’t home at first and I resisted it for a long time, claiming it as only the place a government agency had sent me. But the beauty of home, most often, is that we don’t chose it yet it finds us. We are walking along the same dirt path, greeting the same faces and in the big blue sky we feel this sense of familiarity and safety that only a home can provide. Without me consciously realizing it, Lesotho became home. It will always be home, but it’s not the home I need right now.

South Dakota is home. Pierre and Brookings, particularly, but I’ve always considered all 800,000 some residents as my neighbors. The big open skies, the fiery sunsets, the welcoming no matter where else I’ve been. This weekend, although in Minnesota, I felt great longing for the Rushmore State and it’s unending pride and beauty. I love South Dakota and it will always likely be the most home home I have, but it’s not where I am supposed to be now. It’s not where I am.

As I stepped out into the late July evening, I wondered if Chicago was home now. It’s still early to decide, but the potential exists. Sometimes I think that I will become an Illinois resident soon. I can picture raising children in a nearby suburb. I see myself as an old woman sitting in the park enjoying free concerts the way I did when I first moved to the city as a single woman. Chicago is the first place in a long time where I’ve felt that maybe settling down, making a life, isn’t such a terrible idea.

This morning, as I walked the few blocks from the hostel to work, I smiled big at the tall buildings poking into the blue sky. Maybe Chicago isn’t home yet and a long-term future here is still a giant question mark, but I know that I am happy. Chicago is where I am now so it is where I will be.

Lost Connection

First, thanks to all that responded to my last post, which was kind of deep. Readjusting back to the U.S. is forcing me to look at some pretty nasty sides of myself – kind of like adjusting to Lesotho did – Oh I should write about that sometime – and I have a lot to figure out. I hope to share some of that here or somewhere, but my posts will likely stay incoherent for awhile.

Till then, here is this cool things someone shared with me. I think people who travel a lot often ended up meeting someone great and circumstances force them a part. A new TV show is looking for participants that want to reconnect with old flames. I love this concept and wish there is someone I could go out and find (maybe there is and I am just too embarrassed to admit to it?) but I wanted to share this with some of my readers.

Is this you? Would you want to be reunited with an old crush? Go apply so I can know someone on TV!

LostLovesFlyer-MissedConnection.jpg

Enough

beachOn Friday morning I fought off awakening as long as I could until I was fully conscious and slipped into my running clothes. I followed trails that run parallel to Lake Michigan, passing holiday parties that were already past the festive mark at 8:30 a.m., and, before I was to return home, I ventured on to a pier to meditate and do a few yoga positions. Later, showered and fed, I set up my own camping site, at a coffee shop, and fiercely typed as the same Bon Iver song played over and over in my ears. My patriotic celebration, in the evening, included a cookout under the comforting city sky and then fireworks over the lake.

The next morning I again forced my body into to more sleep but my roommate’s dog needed to be let out, which I volunteered to do while she was away. During our promenade, we stopped at the local farmer’s market so I could buy bread and shoppers could coo at the adorable Daschund. I returned to the market later to pick up lunch supplies for the week and then wandered south, circling in and out of antique shops and quiet boutiques. I bought a memoir for a book club that I am joining and returned to my neighborhood to absorb it along side the ocean. At home, I made I a nice meal, watched a movie, and took a soothing bath while sipping white wine.

On the final day of my weekend, I ran, attend church, read the morning newspaper out on the deck while sipping tea and let the afternoon pass at the beach.
To many, this is not an unusual life – a woman in a city going about her business. Yet, this was a life I dreamt about on my most difficult days in Lesotho. I craved beach runs, fresh produce from the local market and a morning without the horrendous sound of a donkey. It was the simple American life I had given up, which I did so without regret, but I still missed it.

Now it’s in my possession. It’s a life I am fully capable of leading. I had this same life in DC, with a few less of this and a few more of that, but I longed for routine runs along my village road or the vastly empty sky that I started into while drinking tea outside of my house. For many of the early months this year, I wondered if I could truly ever be happy. I always wanted something I couldn’t have.

At mass this morning Father spoke of being thankful for what we have, the blessings God has given us. Not the ones in the past or future, but the little things we had before us now. Although I’ve focused on practicing presence quite heavily in the last four years, I am still not so great at it. Even on this wonderful weekend, I often thought of what was missing and what I lacked.

Since I’ve come home I feel like I am in a constant need. I need this or I have to get this or I really wish this would come to me. These things are both tangible and non, things I feel that I must have for what I don’t know but I must have them. If one is deprived, or at least in my case, it is often because I believe it not because I really am enough.

Life is far from perfect but I have so many good things going for me and I almost always take them for granted. I don’t fully appreciate all that has been given to me because I am so focused on what I am lacking. This is a terrible way to live, feeling as if you need just one more thing, one more person to make your entire life come together. That one more thing or one more person will never be enough.

When I am strung up on a guy, which happens all too often, I will buckle down in disappointment of unmet expectations and myself. One of my friends will tell me that I am lonely and I will agree. Then, always, she says, “Oh, do not be lonely. You are so loved.” I used to hate when she said this because it didn’t make me feel less lonely nor did it make my Prince Charming arrive. It’s taken time but I finally understood what she meant. Maybe it’s different than what I anticipated but it is still present and it’s amazing, insurmountable love.

Farmer’s markets, dirt African roads, ample electricity or long adventures cannot make me happy. Happiness is not something to achieve, rather something to discover. It’s here and the only way to find it is to recognize, appreciate and be grateful for the situations and people in my life now. They are enough. I, in this moment, am enough.

Mebeach

Fourth of July

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Outside of Dallas the riding population thinned out enough so that everyone had their own seats on the bus, even leaving a few rows entirely empty. We made the mandatory stops through northern Texas and Oklahoma with few departing for whatever else better they had to do that day than ride a Greyhound but, as the day stretched into night, few boarded the bus.

It was not my original intention to travel on the Fourth of July but it turned out to be the perfect day for a 20-hour bus ride from south to north. The few travelers meant I could ride somewhat comfortably, blocking the world out to only my iPod and my constant ruminating thoughts.

Weeks before a friend had asked me to drive down to Texas to help her and her husband move. Practically, I wasn’t the best of choice as I can’t life real heavy things, but I was an extra set of arms and I had something most of their friends didn’t: mobility. I could easily pick up and go to Texas for a few days and while others had spouses and children my pride came in that freedom and the spirit to chase it. We drove down there – her husband in a U-Haul and she and I in the pick up truck – and spent a few days unpacking their house and making it a home.

A one-way ticket back to South Dakota was too expensive and I liked the idea of a bus simply because I hadn’t done it before. The cheapest ticket was on July 4 and her parents offered to pay for it because they were unable to help move them, so a few days later they drove me to the Dallas bus depot and I boarded a north-bound bus.

I was rather unfazed that it was the Fourth of July and was secretly excited to have an entire-day obligation. To me the Fourth of July is a loathed day the way New Year’s is to introverts and Valentine’s Day is to single people who pretend that they like being single but actually really hate it.Independence Day is at its greatest in small town America. Entire communities come together with lackluster parades that are drenched in pride and loyalty to their homes and their country. Friends and family combine all of their favorite foods – meat, meat, potatoes, meat – into meals that just taste better on this particular day. City bands, composed of that girl from high school, the guy at the bank, and the woman who works at the grocery store, play “Stars and Stripes Forever” under uninhibited stars before the most gorgeous fireworks display a Midwestern seven-year-old has ever seen.

Or, so that’s how Norman Rockwell and John Cougar Melloncamp tell us it should be. I often put a lot of pressure on this day to make it the epitome of America and the greatest day of the summer. In Pierre, where I grew up, it is certainly that for many people. Boats clog the Missouri River and ever year there is an all-class reunion on some sandbar that I would not know how to get to if asked. We didn’t have a boat and I wasn’t in that crowd, so I spent many of my Fourths working as lifeguard, which was usually great because it included time and half, and then playing for the city band. I was rarely ever able to achieve that whole barbeque, beach, camping, American wholesomeness and so resented those who did and the day. That’s not to say that I never had good Fourths – the year prior I drove out to Pocatello and had a wonderful time singing songs around a campfire – but the day always came with disappointment.

On this particular Independence Day, on a Greyhound, I could forget my expectations for the day and focus on the intoxicating feeling of being in the middle of two points. The nomadic feeling – even if only for a day – is one I never tire of and it gives me such confirmation in myself that few other things do.

There was a cast of character, getting on and off at various locations that I never bother to note, who entertained my long journey. One man was traveling home after visiting his children and asked if I had kids. He later asked me if I was married and, at 24, it struck me as so odd that it would be more normal to him if I had children than if I was married. Another man, also traveling between children and home, smelled of smoke but was polite and asked quite a few questions about why such a beautiful girl was traveling by herself on a holiday.

The journey was so long because it required a seven-hour layover in Kansas City. The bus depot, although situated in a questionable area, was walking distance to downtown so I locked up my bag and found myself in the city center. It was the second time that year I ended up in downtown Kansas City by myself, but I wasn’t bothered. I had the choice to eat where I want, wander down streets that looked appealing, and change my mind on fireworks watching places, which I did. Thanks to the suggestion of an old acquaintance, I found a grassy area near the Mississippi River and laid still as reds, purples, blues and greens fired through the sky.

That Fourth of July was at a beginning point in my life. A month later I would move to Sioux Falls to launch The Post. A year later I would be packing all I could into two suitcases as the next day I would depart for Peace Corps Niger. Things were not perfect and being with others would have likely been better than being alone, but I was so at ease on that Independence Day. The beer I had at dinner, the noise coming from the Power and Light District, the color of the wood at a dock along the river, and the touch of the grass on a cool Missouri evening all seemed as if they were placed intentionally for me. Young, restless, and confused, this Fourth was a flash of a life I never thought I could live.

My last few Independence Days were barely noted, an after thought in a rural African life. Last year I planned a special American history lesson for my students while teaching them “The Star Spangled Banner” and showing them a video of fireworks that my mother had sent. On the way home, I bought a liter of Coke to share with my family because they love the drink and, despite all things I hate about the soft drink, it always, always tasted like home. I did not need a lot of flare, though, I was in a different world and former expectations had no power.

I had been worried about this Fourth, though. I am in a new city with few connections and little knowledge of what to do and where to go. I was afraid loneliness and doubt would be my only true companions on this day that is heavily marketed as one that you should not, under any circumstance, spend alone. Before I could wallow and make single girl plans, a friend invited me to a cookout.

Although I won’t know anyone, I woke up with reassurance from merely having a plan. Then something else took over. I went for a run, stopping to meditate and do yoga on a pier, then running the last bit along the shore, kicking up water like six-year-old. I couldn’t contain the huge smile that stretched across my face. Others were already grilling and beaching, but I was entirely happy making my own fun.

My disdain for the Fourth doesn’t come from the actual day but from my insistence on that only others can make me happy, that if I am surrounded by others and doing the things that I ought to, then I will be happy and be “right”. The older I get the more I am learning that the only approval and company I truly need to be happy is my own. It’s OK to be alone on this day, and any other day, as long as I am doing what makes me happy, even if things aren’t perfect and they never really are. I am really content with where my life is and where it is headed right now; it’s probably the best I’ve felt since returning to the United States. It doesn’t matter what I do today, because I feel good with who I am and where I am at and I don’t need large cookouts or a big boats full of people to confirm anything.

In the beginning

It’s always been my great intention to combine all of my blog posts, newspaper columns, journal entries, letters and memories from Lesotho into a suitable, potentially inspiring, book. It would be easy and therapeutic, I assured myself, and the words would flow happily out into something concise and moving.

Um, yeah, it doesn’t work that way.

Writing this book has been harder and more emotionally draining than I ever anticipated, mostly because I did not expect my transition to be difficult in the ways that it is, sort of like my service was. That part of my life feels so over and I am still having a hard time accepting that. At many junctures, it feels like a breakup. I cry, listen to sad music, mask my feelings with food and drink. I beg the those happy memories to stop popping up and reminding me it’s all gone but they do so anyway. 

I know that these feelings are entirely natural and not uncommon. Many RPCVs, when they find out that I am only six months COSed, will often and chuckle and say, “So, how is your transition?” I meet their chuckle and usually remark, “I am a mess.” And they nod their head because they’ve been there, too. 

Yet, as I try to get out my story, I am forced to dive back into those memories, both happy and sad. It’s hard to not to analyze and objectify them under the pretense of this new life. What did I do well? What did I do poorly? What could I’ve done differently? 

One early morning before work, I was trying to retrace the first few days in my village. I wrote about forcing myself out of the house to meet the villagers but always wanting to run home and sleep. As I wrote, I realized that I was berating myself for not doing more from the start, for not fulling embracing the village and the culture. I seemed so up in my own head and that set a tone for my entire service for which I was not proud of. I was ashamed that I wasn’t a better volunteer, that it took time for me to accept that Lesotho was not only my life but my gift.

Months later, actually just now, I understand why I did not rush into the village with pomp and circumstance and why I needed to slowly ease into it. New chapters are not always easy, at least for me, I need to dunk my toe first before my waist and before my head, which is OK because that is who I am. 

As I made the move to Chicago this week, I thought back to something a fellow Niger volunteer once said. During Tabaski, a holiday that is celebrated some time after the end of Ramadan in Niger, our villages erupt into celebration and it’s customary for friends and neighbors to visit each other and bring plates of food. Some volunteers slid right into immersion and followed around host families through the parade of visits. My friend, though, wasn’t very comfortable with that, so instead she sat outside her house and greeted each person who came by. It was her way of celebrating but doing so in her terms. She knew what was comfortable to her and she stuck to that, something I had admired.

In Lesotho, I did put myself out there, visiting houses and introducing myself, but I also took time to rest and let the experience slowly sink in. Jumping in headfirst is not how I often do things and it would be wrong of me to expect me to do that in a very monumental and unfamiliar situation.

Now, here I am in a new city with a new life before me. So far I love Chicago but I know that it will take some getting used to. It’s a much, much bigger place than DC and I know very few people here. I anticipate my alone time to be greater than it was when I was in Lesotho or DC. A part of me feels like I need to do it all right away. I need to go to every event that seems even slightly interesting, I need to go to meet up groups and try to make friends, I need to find clubs and activities where I can socialize, I need to set up my adult life right this minute. 

That’s a lot to do in five days. Making friends and accepting a new life does not happen instantly, no matter how right that path is, and I need to take care of myself in the process. It’s OK if I want to skip a festival for some writing and reading time or if I am not ready to attend weekly meet up groups. It’s OK to ease into my new life because that’s what suitable for me.

Yes, I know that I will need to take chances, create opportunities, and be vulnerable, but that doesn’t mean I can’t take an afternoon to step back and look at all that’s happened. My life changed drastically this week and it’s OK if it is hard and and confusing. It’s supposed to be. 

I am excited for my new life, but I also need to remember it won’t feel like my new life for several months. I need to give it time, take care of myself, and be present. That’s all I really can do.