The Struggle

We sat on a bench under an escalator. Our friendship had become nearly not in two years, but we had this small chunk of time to talk and act like friends again. We talked about futures, visits home, and my impending departure.

“It’s going to be hard to go home,” she said. I agreed, but she shook her head. “Not for me,” she said with indication she knew more than I. “For you.”

I stood atop a dining room table trying to dehook Christmas lights as I chatted with Katie. The last time we saw each other she and Nick gave me very quick hugs and then went through a set of double doors to their family while I found a train that would take me to another plane. We talked about the holidays and reuniting with home. I asked her how it was and she said that it wasn’t as tough as everyone had made it out to be.  I had been afraid to admit that as if doing so would make the previous two years unworthy, but I was adjusting just fine and being home was wonderful.

He chose this specific bar because of its loyalty to the Seminoles. We filled our glasses with cheap beer while talking about Lesotho and life in DC. His transition is more than a year and half old, allowing him to impart wisdom on this bumpy path I’ve been forced to take. “When you leave, you are so focused on America,” he said. “When you get home, you are still so excited about America. “After three or four months, it hits you. You miss it. And it lasts forever.”

Some days I am walking in a fog.

That song. That word. That memory. I fight back tears because I don’t have the attention to give them, plus it would hurt too much. A +266 number flashes across my screen and I don’t pick up. I don’t know who it is but I wouldn’t know what to say regardless so it’s just best not to say anything.

I misplace these tough emotions on to other things. Maybe it’s the city. The new job. Money. Him. Or him. Or him. Or them. And then them.

I can’t place these feelings into something I can analyze and that furthers them into a dark, unexplored place.  Isn’t this the life that I was sure would ease those emotional aches eight months ago? There is not much for me to complain about. I have a great job, living in an exciting city with an unreasonably active social life. I get to see family more than once in two years. But still, I fight though difficult thoughts. Turns out that life after service is just as emotional as service.

And then we were sitting outside a bar in Foggy Bottom under heaters because spring had gone cool again. We met months ago in Pretoria and built a connection off a shared friend – one of those people who you never assumed you’d see again but are delighted when your paths cross a second time. We talked about our friend, where life had taken us in the last eight months, meeting men in D.C., our jobs, and the thing that is missing.

Without realizing it, I spewed out these thoughts and fears to her. How hard being a volunteer was but I always found comfort in knowing that I had a purpose and now that purpose has vanished. How I was terrified I would never find that purpose again. How I was so proud of the person I became in Lesotho and I fear she is gone. How much I miss it but being here is what I need, even though I don’t have entire faith in that. How scared I am that I am becoming the person I went away in order not to become.

She smiled and nodded. That’s all normal, she said. You are still new at this and it may be a year before you feel right again. That’s OK. On the way home I started to cry and thought back to all those moments when I thought transitioning home would be OK and when I realized it wasn’t: under the escalator, on the phone, in the Seminoles bar. The next morning I cried looking at photos of Lesotho and thinking about that life that I worked so damn hard for is now over. Not because something went wrong or it was wrong, but just because it was time for it to end.

Now I am trying to figure out where my life goes from here, praying that none of it was in vain. I put the same expectations into my service that many do when finding true love — it will bring me happiness, it will change me, it will be all that I ever needed. And it did bring me happiness and changed me, but it was not all that I ever needed because nothing in life is.

Even before I started, my service had an end date and now it’s up for me to figure life beyond that. I am absolutely terrified that I don’t know how. But, thanks to that woman with a reassuring smile, I know that’s OK. I am not crazy and these feelings are natural. Not only am I still transitioning to life at home, I live in a new city and I have a new job. Struggle is expected.

One of my friends told me that I am always lost. I am the wander, she said. But when I am lost it probably means that I am OK.

City Girl

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Twelve years ago, I visited Washington, D.C. for the first time. It was part of a school-sponsored trip to better understand our nation’s government and history. I said that I was Republican because everyone else said they were (the only time I have ever identified with a political party). I traced the name of a fallen Vietnam solider. I took a photo in front of the White House. And tears filled my eyes while walking through the Holocaust Museum.

Yet, the memory that has always stuck with me occurred in a pizza parlor. It was on a street that I likely could not find now and felt underground because of the down slope inside the restaurant. Our table, a mix of juniors and seniors, ordered a few large pies that were delivered to us in tiers. It was a small place so the coalition of South Dakota high school students filled it to the brim. We lingered well after our bellies were full and I wondered what it would be like to eat that pizza every day. To just show up, order a slice and continue on with an urban life. I would live in a city some day. I thought. I must.

The second time I came to D.C. was five days when I moved here.

Since as long as I can remember, I’ve yearned to live in a city, to feel the swell of busy life overtake and comfort me. I’ve been to many, domestic and international, but never long enough to make it my own. My initial ambitions were New York City. It had everything and I wanted everything, yet everything requires great courage. There was always a reason not to go – money is the greatest deterrent of any dream – and I accepted them as reality. I set my bar lower and lower, believing that was what I deserved, and my goals morphed. Idaho was a dream chase to something bigger that didn’t pan out. The Post was supposed to be the whole package. Niger and Lesotho were proof I could do anything.

I made few plans as my Peace Corps service ended, but I knew that my next phase needed to be set against the big city lights. It was one of the things I had wanted for so long and, as I am getting older, I knew that it was now or never. That was always my goal for beyond Peace Corps and there were no compromises to be made.

The city, though, that changed. In Niger, I was very set on New York. It was the place that always grabbed my heart the tightest, for whatever reason. DC came next because of energy and passion. I want to make a difference in the world and DC, at the time, seemed like a good place to start. Then, my desires drifted to the West Coast for the first time. San Francisco, Seattle, Portland. My hippie, earthy nature could thrive in these places and, although I have never actually been to Seattle or Portland, friends and natives reassured me I would fit in.  Yet, as my home return date approached, Chicago, Denver and Minneapolis shone a bit brighter because they are closer to South Dakota and I needed family.

I applied for jobs in all of those cities – San Francisco, Denver, Seattle, Minneapolis, and Chicago – but there were significantly more non-profit job opportunities in New York and DC.  There was a position in New York, but the city and the job didn’t feel right from the beginning. Then there was DC, the position I have now, and one in Seattle. The Northwest was my goal, or so I told myself, and Seattle had more selling points than DC, but in the end it didn’t feel right. One very emotional night, I made a split decision to withdraw my application from the Seattle position and invest fully in D.C. My mom was a bit shocked and was a bit worried that it was an impulse I would regret the next morning. I did not. In fact, for the first time, excitement for my new job and my new city overcame me. It was happening.

The past two mornings, the first at my new job, I’ve walked to the Metro station, boarded a few trains, hustled up escalators, bustled through the commuting masses, stared up at the buildings jutting into the sky. It’s fast. It’s noisy. It’s what I’ve always wanted.

For some, the drain of the city adds unnecessary stress. For some, it’s too much and not anything they would ever embrace. For me, it’s what I’ve always wanted.

It’s true that I am a country kid (I didn’t grow up on a farm, but Pierre, S.D., is a far cry from metropolitan) and here I’ve come to make it in the big city. I am so not used to this world: I wonder about the guy who jumped the tracks rather than being irritated that I will get home later or my eyes widen each time I get the bill.

Still, there is pulse to the city and I get to be at the center. For whatever reasons, ones I may never fully understand, D.C. was meant to be my city. I love seeing the nation’s capitol every morning when I get off at Union Station. I love scanning the faces of everyone I pass and wondering their story. I love that so much is happening outside my door, and I can decide to be in that world or my own.

My life, especially in the last seven years, has been about crossing off things. This city living is a big one, and I am just pleased that I enjoy it so much. The city, this city, is where I am meant to be right now and I plan to soak up all of it.

Start Fresh

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My talented friend Kate sent her homemade screen print (pictured at my sister-in-law’s bridal shower three years ago) shortly before The Post launched. It my fresh start, she said.

This morning, on my last full day in South Dakota, I saw that screen print on my dresser and decided to slip it into a pocket of my suitcase. Although three overstuffed bags are coming with me to DC, it doesn’t seem like a large chunk of my life and I wanted something for the memories and new beginnings.

Tomorrow I start fresh in a new city with a new job. There is much to worry about and the beginnings of anxiety did wake me at 7 a.m. Yet, I chose gratefulness for the day and it’s been an incredible one with friends and family. Things are falling in place and I’m giving my best effort at faith and trust. So much awaits me and I am promising myself to showcase the possibility instead of what could go wrong. Good, good things are in store.

I am leaping. I am trusting. I giving up control. I am embracing.

As the wonderful Foseroo said to me this morning, “The best adventures start off kind of crazy, right?” Yes, Melissa, they do.

I don’t love my body

It’s my last day unemployed in South Dakota as this weekend will be chaotic with family time and packing. It was always my plan to have at least one day where I laid in bed and watched movies but by 8:30 a.m. my heart craved something more satisfying, so I decided to start with yoga.

I pulled on a white camisole and tights, throwing my hair back into a low messy bun. As I walked past the mirror, I turned to the side. I can never be in front of a mirror and not judge myself. Will it be a good day or will it be a bad one? That reflection holds it all. 

Today is a good one. I smiled at my body and then unrolled the yoga mat to gift it. 

It occurred to me, during down dogs, that it is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. It’s been five and half years since my last relapse, but it is still something that I carry, like lip gloss in my purse. 

It’s there every meal when I size up what everyone else ordered and how much they ate.

It’s there when I try on clothes and my size barely comes up over my thighs.

It’s there when the good looking man hits on my friend and only glances in my direction.

It’s there when I wonder if I could truly ever love myself because it’s so damn hard just to love my body let alone all of my other disappointing characteristics.

The last two years brought out some really difficult emotions towards my body and I came very close to relapsing. There were entire weekends when I zoned out thinking only about how much fatter I was than everyone else and plotted diet revenge. I skipped get togethers and meals with friends just so I didn’t have to eat in front of them. I obsessed over my weight and cried myself to sleep because I wasn’t losing weight but more so because this demon would never die. 

It scared me so much that this hatred and self loathing were still present. I thought that I was better, I thought that I had accepted myself but I was further from self love than I had ever been. 

I tried, though. The ultra helped but then the demons came back stronger. I was running so much but not losing the weight like I had wanted. I had lost some weight, but everyone else was still just so much thinner and it drove me crazy. I mediated, wrote long love letters to myself, sought reassurance in other’s compliments, but I could never believe that I was good enough because my body wasn’t. 

It’s probably accurate to say that I deferred all that I was going through during my service to my weight. Loneliness, failure, incompetence are much easier to handle in the context of a number on a scale. 

There wasn’t some magical day or event where everything changed. I did throw out the measuring tap that I used to gauge my worth and tried to eat only foods that empowered me. I started to feel better about myself and, consequently, tried to only focus on the good things. At my COS medical appointments, I asked the nurse to weigh me backwards and to write down the number without my knowing. My greatness in this world is not in a number, I tried to declare. 

Coming home, I let myself indulge without guilt. I also ran a lot in that first month and simply enjoyed being home. I’ve been curious about the number on the scale, but refuse to step on it. I am happier not knowing. There are times when I do feel ugly and fat (I nearly had a breakdown in a dressing room a few weeks ago) but I’ve learned that that is part of me. I will struggle with feelings towards my body, even if strongly and for long stretches of time, like two years, but I also have to celebrate how far I’ve come. I can stop when I am full. One ill fitting pair of jeans won’t ruin my life, I know. I can talk down the demons who pressure me into old habits and patterns of thinking. 

I’ve written a lot about my eating disorder and I will probably always. It doesn’t define me, but it is a part of me. And I want others to know that they aren’t alone. Our society constantly tells us how imperfect we are and we need more people to say that imperfect is perfect. I may not be able to love my body entirely, but that is fine. Love is never always whole and we set ourselves up for failure if we try to achieve undying love. 

Yet, I respect my body. I admire its unending beautiful movements and how it won’t give up on me even when I give up on it. As I continue to grow the love for myself, I find greatness in this body and I cherish it. It’s not perfect but I don’t want it to be. 

Peace Corps National Day of Action

1488207_10152228289073684_1618383373_nIt’s Peace Corps week, a time when former volunteers spread their service into U.S. classrooms and government buildings. It’s a great time for RPCVs to remember their service and use it to promote and advocate for this incredible agency.

Today is Peace Corps National Day of Action and several RPCVs, many of them friends, are spending the day on The Hill to speak with lawmakers about their services and why the program continually needs their support. Although I will be arriving in DC four days late, I wanted to post something today about my continued respect for Peace Corps. Not every volunteer leaves Peace Corps with belief in the agency, but I still have hope in John F. Kennedy’s vision and still maintain that is one of our country’s greatest tools in international development.

This week the International Relations Online posted an interview I did with them about Peace Corps. I am always honored to speak about my service and am very thankful to IRO for that opportunity.

I also wanted to share a video that I made for my Short Grass Arts Council speech a few weeks ago. These are an assortment of photos I took along with recordings of my students singing.

Lesotho from Heather Mangan on Vimeo.

If you are looking at applying to Peace Corps or received an invitation and have questions, please feel free to contact me at heathermmangan@gmail.com. I always love sharing my experiences with those that are interested in the Peace Corps.

Happy Peace Corps Week!