Transitions

My neighborhood is more youthful this Monday.

I moved to my neighborhood in June. It was a unique mix of gay and ethnic populations, with men wearing short shorts walking their dogs in the morning and girls in bright African fabrics running ahead of their mothers on the way to church. Tonight, though, a new population had slipped in, seemingly over night. Groups of bright-faced freshmen wondering out of McDonalds, a boy on a skateboard smoking an e-Cigarette (I still, after many explanations, do not understand these things) and a group of returned students lugging bags and books between stores and their dorm halls. Just a few blocks south of Loyola University, my neighborhood indicates a new school year.

Walking home in the August heat, one of just a handful of hot days in Chicago this summer, my thoughts quickly reminisced about my college years. That first Jackrabbit football game, the energy in the Union, the clinking of glasses with friends you hadn’t seen in three months, Brookings back to life. Those four years, that place. It always makes me smile.

One of my friends used to say that college was the best time of her life. It was surely a good time for me, but far from my greatest years and when I go back to Brookings, a bit older each time, I am reminded that my happiness and joy is sort of frozen in time, where it should be. It’s never the same, but it shouldn’t be. That’s what makes it special.

I have no regrets about my university years. They were well lived and I gained many good friends that are still my rocks to this day. SDSU may not have shattered the world I knew but it did crack it, giving me the courage to break it open on my own.

I didn’t always feel that way, though. I had a lot of regrets about what I did and didn’t do in college and adjusting to life after college was way more difficult than I anticipated. Actually, I had no idea it would be hard, no one told me that. In that first year after graduation, I moved away and then back, I took a job and then quit it. I spent long nights in bars and on friends’ couches trying to figure out how I could ever go on, how I could ever be anything but a student.

“Yeah,” I thought as I walked past sandwich shops and closed antique stores, “that was a really hard year.”

“Actually, it’s kind of how I feel now.”

“And I got threw it.”

It’s funny to me that I didn’t realize this similarity until just tonight.

Last week, I told a co-worker that I am going through this existential crisis because I don’t know what I am. Being a Peace Corps volunteer was my goal for so long and when I finally could add those three letters to my name – Heather Mangan, PCV – I refused to believe they wouldn’t always stay there. And then they were gone, as if I didn’t acknowledge their built-in expiration date. I do not know what is next, nor do I have even a goal to at least short of direct myself towards. I am down right terrified that my significance and purpose in this world ended when my service did.

Of course, I will always be an RPCV and it’s OK for me to feel lost and a bit empty in this year back home – absolutely every RPCV I’ve talked to has felt this way. I felt so relieved when one of my friends from Lesotho told me she doesn’t know what to do with her life either, and she is enrolled in school right now. She then shared something that her cousin told her and it struck me: “Don’t let your past experiences alter the vision you have for yourself.”

As the one-year mark of my return gets nearer (it’s been more than nine months) I am starting to be more in tune with my life in front of me and not the one in memories on the other side of the world. My Peace Corps experience, in both Lesotho and Niger, is one of the greatest things I’ve ever done, but it’s not the greatest. I still have many wonderful, wonderful moments to live and I can only do that if I throw all of my attention to right now. It’s also very much OK that I don’t know what to do next and that I feel a little lost, life is like that sometimes. I am still transitioning and I need time to just wander, physically and metaphorically. The path can’t always be clear.

It took me a good year to accept that I was no longer a student, but that didn’t mean that life was doomed to end there. Actually, it was just beginning because three months after the year anniversary of my graduation I applied to the Peace Corps.

My adventure did not end after college and will not end after Peace Corps.

 

The death of a good man

Somehow, the world spun so fast and it is now August. Summer is taking its last breaths before it resigns and hands over duties to Fall and soon the parade of holidays will start and lead us to the end of this year. It bewilders me that three seasons have been crammed into the space between when I returned to the U.S. and now, as I sit in a sun dress sipping coffee from the deck of my Chicago apartment. 

Seasons have passed and I have lived. 

Time change in Lesotho was quite calculated. Months, holidays, school semesters until the finish line. I often wondered if I joined the Peace Corps because it came with a specific deadline, a goal for my attention. Just get to there, I would push myself along. A new season was a time marker passed.

Peter celebrated seasons, too. As I was trying to shorten my journey, he was lengthening his. For the 70-something man, a season gone met that he was still alive. He was still going. 

If you read this blog while I was in Lesotho, you’ll remember Peter as the British man who lived in my village. He had come to Lesotho in his mid-40s as part of a work placement program. He looked at the list of countries and Lesotho stuck out because he had never heard of it. He came, worked his allotted time and, when opportunities in the UK fell through, decided to stay. He fell in love with a Mosotho woman and on the day their first child was born, a girl, he bought a large chunk of land in Ha Matela.

He often travelled the 50 K to Maseru and they had a home in South Africa, but the land was his kingdom. He told me that he could go back to the UK and have a cramped house in a stinky city or he could have this land with lemon trees, an expansive garden, three living quarters and a beautiful view of Machache Mountain. He had a workshop for his woodworking and a vineyard for winemaking. His home was full of cookbooks and he spent evenings watching the Premiere League. Yes, he could have used more time and money to accomplish all of his projects – the bakery in the shop he owned, the full renovation of their home – but he loved his life with his family. 

It took me a long time to go over and introduced myself to Peter. Although it was custom for Basotho to have people drop in, I wasn’t sure with a man from the west. I often worried I was bothering him and his family, but that feeling always vanished within the first minute of stepping into their home. They never hesitated in welcoming me. 

While having dinner at The Marfleet home in May 2013, Peter read me a poem he wrote. Peter had so many interests and hobbies and it wasn’t at all surprising that poetry was one of them. His poem described an accident he had as a younger man, when he drove right into the back of a semi-truck. He wrote the poem because the same thing happened, just days before I saw him. In the recent accident, his depth perception vanished and he collided right into the truck. I can’t quite remember the poem, but I remember loving it and feeling so safe and welcomed by this man. 

I didn’t see the The Marfleets for many months after that. Peter grew very ill and spent several weeks in South Africa. He had had a stroke, if I remember correctly, and they found a tumor on his brain. The doctors advised care at the hospital but he wanted to be home, with his family and where he could see Machache Mountain each day. 

The last time I saw Peter was shortly before I left Lesotho. I had been busy, they had been busy, but I found time to stop over for a quick goodbye. A few months before I had had dinner with them and I noticed that Peter had slowed down. His energy and enthusiasm, although not gone, was now less. Then, he was optimistic about recovery, we all were, but in December it was clear that he would not being going back. He was on the road to the end. 

On Wednesday Beatrice messaged me to tell me that her father had passed. I deleted my Facebook account some months ago and I’ve actually been nervous that if he did pass I would miss it. But, I gave her my number before then and she was able to connect with me on whatsapp. At first, I was so grateful that this woman who had just lost her father took the time to tell me that he was gone but then I realized he was gone. I went to the bathroom at work and cried. 

Leaving Lesotho, I knew people would die. I understood that the Ha Matela I knew would change without me and I had guessed that Peter’s life would likely come to an end in the near future, but it didn’t make the news any easier. All I wanted was to hug John and Beatrice. I wanted to go over to that house and be with them. I wanted to be able to go the funeral, sit underneath a tarp and listen to people tell stories about Ntate Peter. I wanted to honor this kind-hearted man, but I didn’t know how. I didn’t even know who to tell about his death, so I told Twitter. 

It’s been a few days since his death and it’s only now that I’ve had the time to process and write about it. My heart breaks for his family and I still can’t picture the Marfleet estate without that vibrant man. Yet, Peter taught me a lot about living and finding happiness in simplicity. He showed me that there is no age to stop dreaming and that really the greatest thing in life is the people you love. He was a good man and he makes me want to be a good woman. 

Peter is gone. He did not get to the next season, but he had many, many great seasons. He lived a good life and was loved. At the end of our life, if that’s what people can say about us, then I think we did what we came here to do. 

 

The girl on Lake View Trail

It was another one of those moments.

They happen a lot lately. That awful voice in my head is given a megaphone and starts preaching nasty lies that all mean the same thing: I am not good enough. They are repeated with such intensity that I believe them and accept as truth. I am then hopeless and empty. 

The moment had started the night before when I was attending an event at the zoo. It would be the same story – a bunch of people who knew each other and then me, the single new girl. There are a lot worse things that I could be, but I feel like I’ve been playing this role the ENTIRE YEAR. I really didn’t want to go and, although it was actually fun and one member of the group was an RPCV so we bonded fast, I still went home feeling lonely.

By morning the feeling hadn’t vanished, despite having a fun weekend planned. I grabbed my running shoes and headed to Lake View Trail to pound out some of these feelings. 

A mile in, it wasn’t working, so I stopped to meditate. On the outside, as I tell friends, my life is pretty good lately, but my mind is a non-stop pit of crappy thoughts that bullying me into thinking I shouldn’t be happy. Sometimes it’s a lack of self-esteem (always a problem for me), sometimes it’s missing Lesotho and holding on to the past, and sometimes it’s uncertainty of the future. Not every day, but some, it’s a chore to get up, to put effort into living and I have to take the time to work through whatever is going on in my head. It’s silly because they are people with real problems in this world, but I can’t function or be of any use to the world when I get in these funks. I think it’s part of this big transition in my life – coming home, figuring out what next’s, turning 30 soon – but it’s something I have to actively work on each day. 

When I started to run back, two women passed me. It’s funny because in Lesotho I was always the only one running and I never had an concept of fast or slow, just whatever felt right with my body. As these women passed by me, my mind started to take the turn – “They are so fast and you are not.” “They are skinny, that’s why they are fast.” “You are not good enough to be fast.”

But 30 seconds into self-shaming, I decided I was over it. F it, I am running with them, I thought. One girl pulled out from the other so I decided to keep up with her. And I did. I followed her blue tank top, staring at her sloppy pony, and stayed about two or three steps behind her. I wasn’t sprinting but I was definitely going faster than I had in a while. I probably couldn’t keep up with her for a marathon but I could for this one mile. A few times, I felt enough energy to pass her but that is not what this was about. Myself told me I couldn’t keep up with this woman and I was going to prove me wrong, so I stayed behind and just kept with her. We were coming up to the end of the trail where I assumed she would turn around and I would continue on home, so I kicked it up just a touch to pass her and I didn’t look back. 

I was a bit more winded, but it was the good kind of tired. I told those voices to shut up and I did what they told me I couldn’t. This may not seem like a lot, but in Lesotho I learned to take a win when I can get it, and I am taking this one. All day long I tell myself I am not good enough and, here I was, good enough.

The down time

I met Andrew through Nancy, a fellow volunteer in Lesotho. One of Nancy’s greatest strengths is making new friends. She comes across a person, pulls them into a lengthy conversation, and they are instant friends. That’s how she met Mick and Andrew, who became some of her best friends through out our two years. I first met Mick and Andrew when Nancy invited me to stay at a lodge near Mt. Moorsi, in the south part of the country. We spent our days hiking and nights sitting by the fire telling stories.

Andrew, a Philippine man in his 60s, claimed Australia as his home but had volunteered all over the world. He did two-year stints in Africa, South America and Asia, always going home for at least a year.

“The trick,” he told me as we sipped wine near a glowing fire, “is to go home for a while. Make some money. Let the people you love know you love them. Then you go back out.”

Initially, I took that to mean that the years at home were an obligation to please everyone else. I didn’t think that he, or any full-time vagabond, would actually need the lull between adventures.

My life – from the outside – is good. I have a job I truly love, I am in city that feels like home after a month, and I have a busier social calendar than one would expect for someone who knew exactly two people before moving here. Yet, there is something else going on underneath the solid shell.

Going into the Peace Corps was a huge leap for me. It was completely unexpected for those that knew me and it took me an awful long time to make it happen. But I did it. I turned left instead of staying the course. I broke the mold.

I went to resetting up my life because that’s what I thought I should do and that’s what I’ve done. I have a job and I pay my bills. I go to parties at homes of people who bought them (not renting them) and filled them with babies. I read less. I run less. I write less. My evenings after work pass so quickly I forget the next day how I spent those hours.

Sure, my life in Chicago is different than it was when I was living in South Dakota, pre-Peace Corps. But there are enough similarities that I am scared that the mold is reforming around me and that my courage to do something big was just a fluke. Maybe I am a one-hit wonder.

Or, maybe I am just someone landing then finding her footing before launching into the next grand thing.

The other didn’t I was asked about my ultimate goals and I didn’t have a concise answer. I really truly don’t know.

Recently, I read this article about Jonathan Harris, an incredible artist who, in his 20s, produced incredible project after incredible project. Then he left his home in Brooklyn and traveled a bit, to gain more insight into his art and himself. He eventually came back to Brooklyn and did little of anything. He slept, wandered around the city and didn’t create much. He had to regroup and process what had happened in his life before he could go into the next thing with confidence that it was exactly what he wanted.

I think that’s what Andrew meant when he said that one needs those breaks at home. One needs a year or two to process the experience and the emotions so there is a solid foundation for the next thing.

I may not know what I want right now, but that isn’t a curse and it’s likely not permanent. Peace Corps was my goal for five years and it’s perfectly natural for me not to have another adventure lined up. I know that where I am right now is a good place to be and maybe that should be my focus – right now.

The person I was in Lesotho and the courage I had to be her is not used up, but it’s OK if it’s a bit quiet these days. Maybe I just need a good chunk of time to figure out what’s next – and really know, like I did with the Peace Corps – and then that courage, it will be pulsing.

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.