Thursday, November 28, 2013

A Few of My Universal Truths

(Because spending three years in introspection has its perks ...)

1. People deserve to be loved:
And I mean everyone. Whether they're asking for change, serving you drinks or happen to be your closest friend - loving other people brings you closer to loving yourself. (And what's not to love about that?)

2. Love yourself:
Be your own biggest fan. It's not vain, it's learning to spend the rest of your life with someone you truly enjoy. (And truly enjoying the person you'll be spending the rest of your life with.)

3. It's okay to be vulnerable:
In fact, it's pretty brave. Opening yourself up to the world is not something you will likely ever regret. You will not break, I promise; you will learn to bend.

4. Always do the right thing, even if it's the hard thing:
You will never regret doing the right thing. It conveys respect and deference to any number of situations, persons and emotional truths; I only ask that you do it with kindness in your heart.

5. Happiness is a choice (and it's a damn good one).

6. Be honest, always:
Coupled with kindness, love or respect, it is a rare quality and it is refreshing. We have too little of it in our lives and too many expectations as a result. And people will respect you for it because even if you act a fool, you'll have the courage to admit it (and the forethought to apologize).

7. Never, ever, turn down a dance. Ever.

8. Smile often and mean it.

9. Find optimism:
There is an art to finding the silver lining in situations. It takes practice before it becomes habit and it takes effort, but if you can find that sliver of light you can hold onto it in the darkest of times (and one day it might be your saving grace).

10. A good life will make you work for it:
It's like any good catch; you have to work hard to earn and deserve it, to keep it and make it your personal best. Living a good life is just as much your responsibility as it is your circumstance. Own it.

11. Feed your passions:
Take adventures, soul-search, make your existence mean something to someone other than yourself; leap into thin air and learn to love your life.

12. Hug more (it doesn't count unless it's at least ten seconds).

13. Love more:
And do it unconditionally. It heals wounds, it fortifies, it is every question and every answer; if there's one thing Ghana taught me, it is unconditional, unbound love and, with it, forgiveness.

14. Forgive:
The world can be a heavy place when anger and guilt take up their watch on your shoulders. It may take work and it may be painful, but being able to let go of that pain will free up so much space in your heart that you won't know what to do with it.

15. Be kind to yourself:
Psychologically, we only allow other people to treat us as badly as we treat ourselves; the only problem with this is that most of us insult ourselves often. Even if it's something simple, like calling yourself stupid for a small mistake, it is a terrible habit. Make kindness your habit. Say one kind thing into the mirror every day and start to believe it.

16. Laugh often. And laugh from your toes.

17. Cry more (because it's okay to feel).

18. Listen more:
In fact, make it your goal to become a good listener; because only good things can come from being a better partner/friend/child/colleague/person. And if someone is willing to open up to you, you should respect that.

19. Make the people you love a priority:
It's easy to become distracted in a world where an app exists for every possible interaction, question and desire, but an app won't come over after a break up and it won't help you plan a baby shower or dress up with you for a late-night cult-classic at the local movie theater. Appreciate those people, love on those people like every day is their last day and you will learn what it means to live without regret.

20. Say thank you more often:
And don't wait for a national holiday to do it. Find something to be grateful for every day, make that appreciation known, rinse and repeat. Simple.

Happy Thanksgiving everybody,

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Leaving the Peace Corps Behind ...

Re-acclimating to normal life is going to be more difficult than I thought, but not for the reasons you would assume.

I want to start by saying that leaving anything 'behind' is a myth. Experiences shape you, they affect you long after they end, and they usually take up residence without your notice. They will shift opinions, change behaviors, and continue to pepper your vocabulary with their influence. It's evolution in the simplest form.

The way we close our service brings the expectation that once our service has 'closed' it has ended; it is a chapter in a book that is set firmly in the past. We are left with anecdotes, pictures, and the kind of wistful memories shared with other friends struggling to reintegrate. We end up focusing on the separation of experiences, but why do we feel so strange if our experiences are so separate?

The Peace Corps, by nature, forces people out of their comfort zones. It forces relationships to be made and middle ground to be found. We recognize that, despite the many annoyances of culture shock, our expectations (based on a context completely separate from our current experiences) are unfair. We become compassionate and forgive the faults we see because we understand that our job is not to change, but to affect change. It is an important distinction. And so we create relationships, start conversations, and try to empower those within our adopted cultures to make the changes they wish to see.

It is an art and it is incredibly difficult to do. It takes a level of self-awareness that is hard to adopt, but is  necessary when one exists so far out of context; most of the time we do it without thinking.

Having adopted a new form of interpersonal interaction we return to America changed, but we aren't used to this. We aren't used to applying obvious cultural differences to a place we call home. We assume we understand America completely and this perceived comfort zone comes with expectations that no longer apply. We are different; we operate at a different level; we see things from an outside perspective. We observe because, for two years, observation meant the difference between success and failure and, suddenly, we start to see things we didn't recognize before the Peace Corps. It can be incredibly frustrating.

The thought that we 'close' our service, end a chapter and move forward, is a misrepresentation of our experience and the lessons that we worked so hard to apply. It isn't a 'separate' experience, it doesn't exist somewhere outside of us - what we learned about were people; what we did was adapt.

What I've found over the last two weeks is that I notice more; I notice things about people that probably always existed but didn't seem out of the ordinary when it worked within my context. And it seems difficult to fit those people back into my life - people who no longer see the world like I do, who have faults I clearly recognize, who, astonishingly enough, require the lesson I learned in Africa to be applied to them in America. It's disconcerting; it takes patience.

And it's not that America has changed and become more disappointing, but that I've changed and have become more aware. And I have to remind myself that it would be incredibly unfair not to apply the universal understanding and compassion I adopted in the Peace Corps to my life in America, or to idolize Ghana and my experiences when I know, full well, that people everywhere have the exact same potential to impress and disappoint.

I cannot run away from these things, they will exist wherever I go. I can, however, accept that I will always have a unique perspective and that it's okay that America isn't perfect. My Peace Corps experience is not somewhere behind me because it lives at my side. I will notice things now, and some of them will disappoint, but maybe - just maybe - I can begin to apply my experience as a volunteer and affect change where it really matters: in America, in my context.

So, happy hunting, my fellow change agents and remember to keep an open mind.


Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Haunted Streets

I rarely ran into my past in Ghana. Even Facebook, with its endless possibilities, was avoidable; containable. I could focus. I could assess and improve; I could quantify. And I could do it all with the clarity of a safe distance, which I now understand was a unique opportunity.

I've been home for just over one week and there are so many stories to catch up on, so many faces to see (both the anticipated and the unexpected). Some of them belong to distant paths, ancient things; others walk a faint trail, their paths just emerging. It turns out to be a very large pile to sift through, to organize in my mind, to find a place for in my life - a life I'm only beginning to figure out again.

This is obviously a work in progress, the attempted management of a readjustment they warned me about. Except it's not exactly the kind of culture shock I thought it would be; turns out I can totally handle incredibly high-tech bathrooms, grocery stores (to a degree), and the ability to understand every conversation around me without needing to listen in like a lonely ex-pat creeper. What seems to be the struggle now is re-fitting all of the pieces. Actually, just plain fitting in.

And I guess it sounds silly to admit that my biggest problem is finding room for all of the people interested in catching up, in showing appreciation for the things I've done, even if briefly. I guess it's just the fact that things simultaneously seem to have changed completely and not at all, that in the same week I can go without recognizing a single face to recognizing entirely too many to process. It's apparently no easy feat to step out of your life for three years and walk back in, having had so many unbelievably important, but completely separate experiences. It's a little like waking from a dream.

These are my haunted streets. All ghosts welcome.