Sunday, December 7, 2014

One Year Back - What I've Learned

I've been trying to write this entry for the past six months.  I've written and deleted it multiple times, but I think December 6, 2014 is the perfect day to finally get all this permanently on the record.  I am not an emotional person and I don't put any value on my feelings or other peoples' feelings... I take a pretty cerebral approach to life.  I'm not one for nostalgia or holding onto things.  I prefer to take things for what they are and to adapt and adjust.

One year ago today I left Paraguay and my life as a Peace Corps volunteer came to an end.  This blog entry is a summary of what I have learned over the past year in Michigan and the uncensored, somewhat painfully honest result of my entire Peace Corps experience.  I think one of the reasons that it has taken me so long to write this is the concern that being honest might have some negative impacts, but life is full of obstacles and there's no justification in avoiding them.  So I'll get into it...

I think people sign up to do things like Peace Corps for a multitude of reasons.  Some people are overflowing with love and compassion, some want to advance themselves in a career, some people are active politically and socially and need an outlet... And then there are those of us who are just looking for a way to push a "re-set" button because we may have screwed things up earlier in our lives.

I was a complete mess when I joined Peace Corps.  On the surface I had it together with my professional and personal life, but in reality I felt like I was trapped in a cage and completely stuck.  I seemingly had to do nothing and things just fell into my lap.  Jobs, friends, a car, an apartment...  My life was full of things I never asked for or pursued on my own.  I felt as though I was living someone else's life.  Tired of being so unhappy, I made a rash decision and submitted my application for Peace Corps, and the next thing I knew I was committing to 27 months in a different culture thousands of miles from home.

I didn't realize the full scope of how this experience changed me until after returning to the US.  Peace Corps tries to prepare volunteers as they leave their host-countries for the shock of going back to their old lives, but that training sort of futile.  I guess, just as volunteers have different motivations for service, they have different ideas and expectations for readjustment.  Personally, I think coming back to the United States has been harder for me than moving by myself to a tiny community outside of Ybycui where I didn't speak the language.  People ask me frequently if things are "back to normal."  No way.  I will never recover from Peace Corps.  Nothing will ever be "back to normal."  I have been home a year now, and I am still out of sync with the pulse of US culture... It's like I still don't speak the language.  So in the end, I am STILL a complete mess after my Peace Corps experience.  More on this later.

So let's dig a little deeper.

Paraguay affected me in very deep and profound ways.  Over the two years that I spent in the campo, all the BS got stripped away and I was left with the bare minimum.  I was challenged emotionally and spiritually with constant disappointment and frustration.  Honestly, I felt abandoned.  If before I was given everything without asking, Paraguay taught me the meaning of the word "NO."  The elements (or lack of elements) drained me physically, and my inability to communicate and comprehend verbally and culturally shut me down constantly.  As a result, my political, spiritual, and social views have shifted.  I'm more assertive and confident.  I learned to know, experience, and love God outside of a church-saturated environment.

When I walked out of the airport in Lansing a year ago, I entered my old world as a new man.  To be fair, everyone around me was different too.  My parents had retired, friends had gotten married, had babies, or moved away... Everything was different, but in the same place.  As I mentioned above, I was looking for that "re-set" button.  I had aspirations of moving to Washington or Oregon and taking on an exciting new career.  I applied for jobs and made arrangements to stay with my sister in the Seattle area while I looked for work.

Real life catches up though.  Money makes the world go 'round, and one has to make money to survive.  Over the next 6 months, I would end up moving back to Michigan, take my old job back, buy a car... One year after closing out of Peace Corps, on paper my life looks exactly like it did three years ago. 

This is where the truth bombs start.  Coming to grips with my status in life is difficult for me in a number of ways.  Peace Corps was a massive challenge-- probably one of the toughest things I will ever do in my life, and now I'm back to square one.  Don't get me wrong, I'm grateful for everything that I have.  I'm very blessed in my existence... but that's what this is.  It's existing-- not living.  So here's a few challenges that have faced over the past year:

1.  Spiritual Connectivity.  I don't want to get super-religious with this post because I know there's a wide variety of people out there who read this and I am hoping to remain relatable, so this will be quick.  But if you know me, you'll know that my faith is a huge part of my life.  Since returning to the US, I have been unable to reconnect with Christianity as it is manifested in American culture.  It just doesn't resonate with me anymore.  I am still a Christian and I have a relationship with God, but I live an alternative life, different than most, and I don't know why everyone wants me to live it just like they do.  I can't.  This is it's own blog post, but it probably will never be written.  Talk to me if you want to know. 

2.  Social connectivity.  Before Peace Corps, I was in my early 20s and my single/no-kids status was not an issue.  I had tons of available friends who shared my interests and activities.  I didn't realize the impact of what never getting married or have my own family would mean for me as I got older.  This is, again, the subject of a blog post that will probably never be written.  Talk to me if you want to know, haha.

Now that I'm approaching 30 and in a new city, people have started disappearing.  The fact that I never date and don't know how to be around children has begun to corrode my ability to relate well with others in my own age bracket.  Also, just in general making friends as an adult is HARD.

3.  What's next.  I'm so used to living my life from phase to phase.  Most people in the US go to high school, then college, then get a job, get married, become a parent, then a grandparent, then die.  Life in a nutshell... phase to phase.  I've reached the end of my line in a lot of ways.  There is no "what's next."  It's just... what is there.  The phases are over for me.  I understand that sounds pesimistic, but it's the bare bones of real life.  The phases provide structure.  They tell us what's normal and what's expected.  I need to find a way to create my own phases.  This is probably it's own blog post that WILL be written at some point! 

SO... this is getting long.  I need to call back to a few things and bring this to a close.  Yes, I'm a mess.  But we're all messes, right?  We live as flawed people in an imperfect world.  It's why we need God.  So being a mess doesn't bother me, haha.  Let's see if we can conclude this entry with a bit of sappy positivity (which you should appreciate and hold onto, because this is like a once-a-year thing for me).

The "re-set" button is fictional, and useless to chase.  Every day is it's own re-set button.  Living life is 100% waking up in the morning and looking at it as independent from the one before and the one after.  When you think about it, this is so liberating!  Every day is full of it's own opportunities to succeed and fail, to learn and observe, and adapt, adapt, adapt.  I'm learning every day how to better live in the moment.

Before I left Paraguay, I was suffering from quite a bit of anxiety.  The idea of returning to the US freaked me out so bad I went to see a therapist in Asuncion.  I probably could have benefited from a few sessions, but the one thing she told me that really stuck is that Happiness is not something you find, it's something you build.

Now, I've told you I don't care much for feelings.  Happiness and sadness are all relative and I believe you can turn off your emotions like a robot (a skill I have mastered, lol).  But the philosophy is a good one.  The idea that our acceptance of our surroundings and our ability to adapt and change is key to our satisfaction.

It may sound like my time in Paraguay with the Peace Corps was a net loss.  Not so!  Completing my service was hands-down the best decision I've ever made, and I am so proud of it.  I don't believe in accidents or coincidences and I think mistakes are only mistakes if you don't learn from them.  Paraguay taught me to stop fighting my nomadic tenancies.  I'm a wanderer, and that's okay.  And over my time on earth I hope to wander all over the place.  This world is full of people and places and I want to see, taste, and immerse myself in all of it.  

So... to close I am issuing a challenge to myself for 2015.  I've been wanting to write more, so I am committing myself to completing a blog entry EVERY DAY next year.  It's all going to revolve around this idea of building happiness and a satisfying life, and what that looks like to this hopeless realist, lol.  Things are gonna get real, people!  I'm hoping to to tackle some huge things next year, and I'm pretty excited about taking this on.  It's important to me to follow through, so hold me to it, ok?

Thanks for reading. ;)

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Another Update... Blerg

Hey everyone!  Sorry I have been so delinquent when it comes to updating this thing.  It would serve me well to be documenting my experiences because the trip I'm on is sort of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

For the past 6 weeks I have been wandering up and down the Pacific Coast.  I originally made a "move" to the Seattle area, living with my sister in Everett for a few weeks.  But soon after that, Real Life called and made it very clear that Michigan is where I'm supposed to be for a while.  USDA-NRCS has asked me to return to my Soil Conservationist position, and I have agreed.  But I'm getting ahead of myself.

So anyways, Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco have been my main hotspots.  First I drove down to Portland to visit Elijah, one of my best Peace Corps buddies.  Portland is a great town!  I'd never been to Oregon before, so it was really fun to see a new place and see a good friend in his natural environment, instead of... well... whatever Paraguay turned us into, haha. ;)  I also got to catch up with Becca, who was up in Portland for the day, and we went to a Trailblazers game!

After a few days in Portland, it was back to Everett.  I spent lots of time with my energetic nieces (Rayne and Neve), and got to do some fishing with my brother-in-law.  I even managed to find some Colón Completo yerba mate (My FAVORITE!) at the latino market in the Pike Place Market in Seattle.  $12.50/kilo as opposed to $1.50/kilo in Paraguay, but the scarcity of it in the US makes it worth it, right?

Neve and Rayne at a park on the Possession Sound in Everett, WA
 Next stop San Francisco, California!  I have known Stephen and Mandy Decker for 22 years.  At my age, it's rare to have those kind of friendships, and I was so excited to spend time with them and catch up!  They live in a great apartment right downtown, and it gave me the opportunity to do and see a lot while I was in the city.  Both of them work, so I was able to basically go a different direction every day from their apartment and see different things. 

Mandy and I at Muir Beach

Stephen and I at Pirates Cove

I also got to make the trip up to Zamora, California to visit with some other Peace Corps friends.  Mark and Susan were great inspirations to me while I served in Paraguay, and it was SO GOOD to see them and catch up with them.  They live in a truly beautiful area.  Yolo County is where a lot of almonds are grown, and Mark took some time to take me on a mini agricultural tour.  We saw rice fields, mustard, onions, almonds... I've always been super proud that Michigan is the second most agriculturally diverse state in the country, but it was really fun to spend some time in rural California, which is number 1 in crop diversity.

Susan, Mark, and I at their beautiful house in Zamora, CA
Mark giving me the scoop on how almonds are grown and harvested
 And now I'm back in Portland for a few more days with Elijah.  We're hopefully going to get out and do some hiking or visit the Oregon Coast while I'm here.  Yesterday was beautiful, so while Elijah was out for a bit I took a 5 mile run around the Willamette River.  All the trees were in bloom!  No matter what is happening in Michigan, Spring is on the way somewhere! :D

View of the Willamette River and the Steel Bridge in Portland, OR
  I head back to Michigan on March 26 and will be moving to the Kalamazoo area in April.  NRCS has placed me in Van Buren county, and I am extremely excited to get back to work!  I'm going to get to learn about grapes and blueberries, which is all new for me.  Plus, where I'll be living is close to Lake Michigan and only a couple hour drive from Chicago, which is fantastic!

I hinted at this before, but this trip has taught me some big lessons.  In my discussions with Stephen and Mandy (we got DEEP the last night I was there, lol) it was so great to know that I have such amazing people in my life.  They're people who are not afraid to tell me the truth and challenge me, and are always there to support and encourage me. 

My whole life I've sort of fought this "nomadic" idea.  I've always claimed to hate change and I've always preached commitment and consistency.  My actions over the past 10 years have proved otherwise, haha.  While those latter two concepts are good things, sometimes I take them too far.  I've learned that I need to embrace this nomadic element of myself and stop trying to fight it.  I'm much happier when I stop projecting myself five years into the future and actually live in the present.  I'm going to be much better off if I let life take me where it takes me instead of trying to force things that just aren't there. 

So that's what's going on right now.  Drifting, learning, and living it up on the West Coast!  It won't be long and I'll be back in the frozen tundra of Michigan (Which, believe it or not, I AM excited about).  I am much more of a Midwesterner than I ever thought.

As for shameless plugs, continue to check out my YouTube channel for updates on RPCV life and more Peace Corps information.  If people keep asking questions, I keep making videos.  So thanks for reading and watching, and I hope you continue with me onto my next adventure!