Exactly two years ago today I left Home. I trudged through O’Hare in full sobs painfully aware of everything I was leaving outside the automatic doors, weighed down both figuratively with the burden of goodbye & literally with suitcases containing 700 some days worth of essentials. The thought alone still makes my stomach turn, & while I’m somewhat surprised that my brain didn’t block that brutal memory out, I’m mostly just thankful that I managed to keep putting one foot in front of the other. At the time I felt like the forward momentum away from everything I held dear was equivalent to a death march, but from where I’m sitting now (balanced on a yoga ball, resting after a weekend with friends & eagerly anticipating another week with my students) I know that each sluggish stride brought me closer to an incredible journey just waiting for me across the ocean. In trying to prepare for a very different departure this November 17 I came across something I wrote last year around this time that aptly illustrates how I feel on this strange second anniversary.
Rust-colored paint, barely peeking through the scraps of old carpeting that have been fashioned into rugs. Slanted walls plastered haphazardly with peachy floral wallpaper. A ceiling-to-floor peeling pastoral mural. A full sized, tangerine oriental rug hanging on a wall opposite a fancy black shelving unit that runs the length of the room. A window hidden behind thick, white lace curtains flanked by layers of sherbet, brocade, flowered drapes. Felt and leather furniture draped with fluorescent fringed orange velour. Pattern upon gaudy pattern, and inch after dusty inch of the seemingly trivial details that I already worry I’ll forget all too soon.
This room, the main one in the Soviet-era apartment that I now call home, is a shining example of the experience that serving with the Peace Corps is enabling me to have. Sometimes it seems to be the setting for too much of my time, and yet I already fear leaving knowing it will likely be for good. Its tacky wallpaper that I described with disdain less than a year ago now seems vintage and endearing to me. In the dark of winter or directly proceeding a spider spotting it seems a fortress of solitude, a cold and hostile place, yet after 18 hours of public transport ‘cozy’ is the only adjective that will do. My landlady and the piles of her old, decrepit belongings that she stores here ensure that I never forget I’m not entirely welcome, yet the sea of faces smiling at me in photos and heartfelt trinkets from kids somehow manage to make me feel at home. Yes, this room and this county provide a myriad of memories and a mind full of mixed emotions to sort through. Luckily, two years in the Peace Corps supplies time for sorting galore.
I’ve now officially made my way, occasionally skipping, often crawling, to the halfway point of my service and am somewhat apprehensively embarking on a mission to analyze the life I’ve carved out for myself a half a world away. At first this ‘carving’ consisted of me sitting on the ground legs splayed, arms crossed like a petulant five year old letting the waters of life abroad rush past me while I pouted. Any shaping done at that time can only be credited to the same steady force that gave the Grand Canyon its depth and beauty while its rocks sat immobile. Instead of streams flowing through, in my life it was God’s love, grace, and power gently but resolutely winding around and forging a way through my stubbornness. Gradually I moved to cathartically voicing my frustrations by swinging a mallet at the marble block of my life here & watching chunks fall away without a hint of grace or acumen. It is only recently that I’ve begun to realize the hidden potential waiting to be unveiled by a chisel’s simultaneously soft and deliberate strokes, and the patience of an artist genuinely striving to create something beautiful.
While I think the artist metaphor was a bit of a stretch, in retrospect this past year really did live up to my lofty expectations. Between the hours of frantic phone calls, sheer volume of public breakdowns, & even written proof of neurosis evident to any faithful reader from the first few months I think it’s neither a surprise nor an exaggeration to say that the first year here sucked sometimes. Yes I made new connections, fell into a new culture (again, quite literally at times) & had incredible experiences along the way, but to be completely honest I felt like those were just silver linings to the Eyore-esque storm cloud that hung around on occasion. When I visited at Christmas the question “Would you do it again?” came up a few times & while my public response was always a ‘yes’ I’d be lying if I said the query didn’t give me pause. It was a deep seated, unsettling, ‘what if’ kind of thought that I deliberately suppressed convinced that the honest answer might bring on a little cognitive dissonance if not a full on quarter-life crisis.
Ask me today however, & I could answer honestly & immediately with an emphatic ‘absolutely’. As crazy as it seemed to trade in my perfectly lovely life in America, it would have been even crazier to turn down the opportunity to experience life to the fullest in Ukraine. I opened my heart up to this new culture & community, & in return it has rushed in to fill the space with joy, love, & gratitude that I never thought possible. The only tears that fall these days are the product of being so filled to the brim with appreciation & expectations for the future that a little spillage is unavoidable. The life I have here & the life I get the privilege of plotting out in America are incredibly beautiful indeed. So on this second anniversary I just want to say thank you. Thank you to everyone who has seen me through and thank you for everything that has brought me to where I am today. Thank you for the chance to create an exciting future at home, & thank you for two years’ worth of sustaining memories of the past that can never be taken away. Thank you for changing me & thank you for helping me stay the same. Thank you for understanding that only by dropping me in a place where I felt like I had nothing would I realize how incredibly much I have. Thank you, sincerely thank you, for Peace Corps Ukraine