Saturday, January 11, 2014

This Blog Has Moved

Dearest Readers,

In preparation for my Peace Corps service, I have moved my blog over to a different host (Wordpress), as I have come to like their formatting, writing abilities, etc. more than the traditional Blogger setup. 

You can find the "new" blog over at  Don't worry - all my old posts, your comments, and other fun details are over there, along with a bunch of new and exciting features!  Check it out.  I will be leaving this blog up for a while yet as people make the transition, but please bookmark the new blog for future use.



Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Long Goodbye

"Nothing makes the earth seem so spacious as to have friends at a distance; they make the latitudes and longitudes."  - Henry David Thoreau
 Sometimes there are things in life that you love, but you hate getting there.  For example, I love traveling. I love almost everything about it – searching out plane tickets, packing, navigating the airports; I don’t even particularly mind all the waiting involved.  However, every time I travel I always seem to forget about how much I actually dislike flying in planes. The sitting, the other people, the taking off and the landing and all that time in between. I don’t love flying, but I always seem to forget about that part until I’m on the actual plane. I imagine this is somewhat what childbirth is like, and is the sole reason why women can consider having more than one child.  Surely no woman remembers their last delivery and thinks, “Yeah, I could really go for some serious labor pain right now.”   But I digress.

In joining the Peace Corps, I think this concept of enthusiastic forgetting applies. We, my fellow PCVs and I, are so, so, excited to join. We are excited to apply, to be nominated, to get our invites, and to get on that dang plane and fly away to our countries of service.  I think, though, we sometimes forget about the leaving. About what it means to walk away from everything and everyone you hold dear.  This week, that part of the process – the leaving – began for me.  I write this post knowing that I’m not alone in this and that other volunteers will say similar goodbyes, and that is a sad, yet comforting thought.
I went back East these past two weeks somewhat on a whim, somewhat because my airline miles were burning a hole in my pocket, and mostly because I have a great Aunt Gail who just turned 93. Zambia is approaching (four-and-a-half months and counting) at a startling (and yet somehow glacial) pace, and my dad suggested perhaps I go to see her in case that chance has passed by the time I return from abroad, whenever that may be.  He was right, of course. My own grandparents died when I was relatively young, and deteriorated with age long before I could appreciate their role in my life. Thus, I never had a true opportunity to say goodbye them before they passed away.  My dad's suggestion to see my aunt grew in my mind from idea to necessity.
So I went to see my great-aunt Gail (name changed to protect the dear to my heart).  She has always been such a wonderful woman; full of the Harrison spirit and zest for life.  She lives in an old folks home now, though manages her day pretty independently.  At 93, the only thing noticeably starting to deteriorate is her memory, and even then mostly just her short-term capabilities.  Aging, it would seem, can be a bit of a bitch.
I arrived at her retirement home, kindly dropped off by my host and uncle J, and walked in to my enthusiastic (great) aunt smiling and waving.  Does she know who I am? My uncle bids us farewell and agrees to come pick me up after lunch.  He has warned me in the car that my aunt is almost completely deaf without her hearing aids, and she removes them to go to her aquacize class, to which I have been invited.  Sure, why not?

"Oh, I'm so glad you're here," she beams at me.  Oh, good. She knows me; this will be easy.
She thrusts an old-lady swimsuit at me saying, “Let’s aquacize!”  I examine the aging garment with doubt, but go to put it on. As my menopause hips haven’t really filled out yet, I didn’t quite fit the suit. I ask my Aunt for a safety pin. 

"What do you want?" she asks.  She can't hear a darn thing I'm saying.

"Do you have a safety pin, Gail?"

"A what, dear?"

"A SAFETY PIN! FOR THE SUIT! IT'S TOO BIG FOR ME!" I shout. I imagine her neighbors dialing down their hearing aids as the volume escalates.

"Oh, you look fine, honey," she says, trying to hustle me out the door.  Fine? There is a wardrobe malfunction in my near future if I don't find something to keep this thing on me.
I glance around the room and spot a binder clip sitting on a shelf. I grab it and manage to clip the suit into a more secure position.  Satisfied, I turn to my aunt and say, "Are you ready to go, Gail?" 

She looks at me with a puzzled expression and says, “You know, you remind me so very much of my nephew B (my dad).”  I look at her, unsure as to whether she’s kidding or whether she really isn’t certain as to the identity of the person trying on her swimwear.   
She says, “Are you his daughter?” 
I say, “Yes, Gail. I’m Hannah. I’m B’s daughter. I’m your great niece.” 
She says, “Oh! Well good!  Let’s swim!”   
Later as we’re walking through the halls of the home she is introducing me to other residents.  “Oh Fred,” she’d say, “this is my granddaughter from Alaska!” and so on. After a few introductions, we waved goodbye to some guy with a goldfish memory (we later met him again. Exact same introduction) and she turns to me rather sheepishly and says, “you are my granddaughter, right?” 

I say, “Well, you had two brothers, Gail. Right? One of them was George(long deceased).  I’m George’s granddaughter.”  She looks at me and says, “And George was my brother…”


“And his son was B.”

“And you’re B’s daughter.” 


“So, you’re my great niece!”

Winner winner, chicken dinner.

I’m so glad I got to spend that little bit of time with her, even if it was just a swim and lunch together on the patio.  While we were eating she looked up over her soup and said, “Deary, why are you here?”

I pause, mid-bite into the world’s driest chicken sandwich.  Uh oh, have I been eating lunch with someone who is now troubled to learn of her wearabouts and unknown company? I say, “Gail, do you mean why am I here eating lunch with you, or why I am here on the East Coast?”

Gail says, “Well, you live in Alaska.”


“So, why are you here, in Baltimore?”

Oh, okay. Thank god.
This is the conversation I’ve been dreading to have with her. Why am I here?

“Well, Gail..." I pause, unsure. "Do you know what the Peace Corps is?" I ask.

“Yes,” she says. “President Kennedy made the Peace Corps, right?”

“Right. Well, I am joining the Peace Corps and in February I am going to move to Africa and…” I start to choke up.  I’m here to see you because you might be gone when I come home, Gail. I’m here to see you so I can say goodbye in a way I didn’t get to say to my own grandparents.  She is looking at me expectantly.

“Gail, I came to see you.”


“Yes. I came to see you. I’m going to live in Africa for a few years, and wanted to come to visit with you before I left.”

She puts down her spoon. 

“Oh.  You’re going to Africa?”


“I remember the trees in Africa," she says.  "I went around the world three times, you know." 
She is now having a minor disagreement with her Caesar salad, not recalling whether or not she has already put dressing on it (she has).  As she stabs for a crouton, I’m sniffling into my napkin thinking of how this very last visit with her, perhaps forever, has been made so much more real by saying it out loud.
Finally, she looks back up at me. 

“I sure love you, deary,” she says.

She reaches over the table to hold my hand, tactfully ignoring my sniffling. 

“I love you too, Gail." I'm hoping my sniveling looks like a bad case of allergies to the surrounding cafe patrons, most of whom are looking at me with concern. 
The next day the whole family goes to dinner and Gail spends most of it smiling blankly at people due to a faulty hearing aid and the fast moving conversation of people who haven’t seen each other in a long time.  Toward the end of dinner, she leans across to me and says, “I’m sure glad we got to have our time together yesterday.” 

“Me too, Gail.”
"Man's feelings are always purest and most glowing in the hour of meeting and of farewell."   - Jean Paul Richter

We go to drop her off at her home as the rest of the family hurries back to watch the football season opener.  The car ride home she’s preoccupied with the challenges of buckling her seatbelt (she insists I don’t help) and I feel this rushing of a goodbye coming at me like a freight train.  We walk her into her house and help her into her easy chair.  Her son (my first cousin once removed whom I shall refer to as my uncle) flips on the football game and she is excited for the kickoff.

“Well,” her son says, loudly, after a few moments.  “I guess we had better be heading back to the house to meet everyone.”  His volume achieves results as Gail begins to smile and wave goodbye.  So this is it. This is goodbye. What do you say to someone you might/will never see again?

I kiss the top of her white-haired head.

“Thank you so much for seeing me, Gail. I love you very much," I say, feeling my throat tighten and my eyes burn with welling tears.  She smiles up at me, clearly not hearing much of what I’m saying.

“You’re leaving deary?”

“Yes, Gail. I’m going to head back to J’s with everyone else.” I'm struggling to keep my voice from breaking.

“Okay!  Thank you for visiting!”  She continues to smile at me.

“Okay, Gail….” my face does that weird ‘I’m-about-to-cry’ tremble and I choke up the next words. “I’ll see you in a few years.” I hope. “I love you.” I love you. I love you. I love you. Goodbye.

“Goodbye, Auntie Gail.” I hurry to the door and make for the car in my last attempts at maintaining some sort of composure.

“Goodbye, dear!”  She happily waves as we pull away. I think my uncle can feel the gravity of the moment and there is a bit of extra silence in the car with us as we drive back to his house.  The rest of my family is waiting there, and soon the sad goodbye is washed away in a tide of merriment and greetings and alternating cheering for the Baltimore Ravens and questions about my Peace Corps service.  It was a lovely last night in Baltimore, and the trip was everything I could have wanted.
"Ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation."  - Kahlil Gibran

Back in D.C., I visit with my friend and fellow ZamPCV Craig.  We are visiting at his kitchen counter and he asks me about my trip, knowing the nature of my visit.  As I describe this story to him, I feel those hot, unshed tears begin to creep up again.  I pause, tactfully sipping my beverage to cover my brimming emotions.  I try to keep talking, but my voice betrays me and breaks, crashing down with the weight of all the sadness of my goodbye to Gail.  I begin to cry, perched pathetically on his bar stool, shaking with each sob and filling the room up with the awkwardness of emotion between acquaintances.  
"How do you do this?" I sniffled.  "How do you say goodbye to someone you love so much, knowing it will be the last time? What do you say? How do you let that moment pass, knowing it's the last?"  I cried these questions to the silence that surrounded us in his kitchen.  I felt like such a fool. Why did I bring this up? I'm such a hideous crier. Why did I subject this person whom I've just recently met to my personal emotional baggage? Whywhywhywhywhy!

It was at that moment that I learned what it is to find your own people amongst all the folks in the world.  Craig comforted me with a hug and let me finish my story, silently acknowledging my hurt and sadness. He then did something I had not expected - he told me his own story of losing his grandmother, and the future sorrow he expected as he says goodbye to his grandfather before leaving for Zambia.  I'm not in this alone.  Experiencing that mutual sorrow together and knowing that he and the other volunteers in my group (or Zam Family, as we now call it) are going through the same things that I am - there is no greater gratitude for that shared experience than that which I have in my heart, now. 

Peace Corps - the hardest job you'll ever love. Damn right. I know that many goodbyes await me over the next few months; many will be nearly impossibly hard to say, and I am now finding nearly impossible to describe.  So, I think I will end this post with this last quote, a favorite of mine: 
"How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard."  - Carol Sobieski and Thomas Meehan, Annie

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Stomaching the Bitterness of Living

“Maybe the genuine traveler is always positioned in the eye of the storm. The storm being the world, the eye that which he views it. Meteorologists tell us that within the eye all is silent, perhaps as silent as a monk’s cell. Whoever learns how to see with this eye might also learn how to distinguish between what is real and what is not, if only by observing the ways in which things and people differ, and the ways in which they are the same. 

Baudelaire wrote that travelers leave in order to depart, and he also wrote about the spurious notion they take with them, and about the “bitter knowledge” their travels provide them with, about “the petty, monotonous world that allows us to glimpse ourselves, yesterday, today, and tomorrow: an oasis of horror in a desert of tedium.” Looked at from this point of view, perhaps it is he who stays at home among the the familiar anecdotage of daily life who is running scared, being unable to stomach this bitter knowledge. As far as I am concerned it is not about which of us is the hero here, but about which of us is doing his soul’s bidding at whatever cost.” - Cees Nooteboom’s Nomad’s Hotel

I am shamelessly borrowing this quote from my new friend Will over at Rajasthan to Kerala, who is embarking on an adventure race across India (in a rickshaw, no less) shortly before I leave for Peace Corps.  I very much admire his tenacity to go somewhere unknown and try something that will undoubtedly leave him a changed man, for better or for worse (bets on the former).  It is not a timid thing to step out of one's door, knowing that the adventure that awaits you will never let you return quite the same person you were. As Tolkein said, "it is a dangerous business going out your front door."  

I'm on the East Coast this week visiting my dear friend Steph at Elon University in North Carolina, and a smattering of other folks around the D.C. area. It's been a pleasure, and I love seeing the south again.  My last visit to this coast was enjoyed from the backseat of a car betwixt not a few naps, card games, and other road trip diversions meant to give parents a respite from their children.  Visiting now as an adult and with a less tenuous grasp on American history and culture, the south has become a fascinating place. Truly, my visit is based around this cultural tourism and I have great plans to tour the capitol again once I return north later this week. 

Stepping out my door for this short trip, even in a familiar country, has left me with a whirlwind feeling of excitement. I dearly love my Alaskan home, but long for the greater adventure of Peace Corps and Zambia (Zambia!) in February. I've had the opportunity to meet a few fellow PCVs, some of which have my same assignment. It's so rewarding to meet these people in person, hear their voices, soak up who they are and know that I will get to continue these important friendships over the next several years. What a gift this road has brought me. 

In reading through this passage again, I am struck by the word "bitterness".  I have retched at the sour taste of tedium and monotony in life, and vowed with this post to always strive for the more flavorful bounties that life may offer. These last few months while I struggled with indecision, I think I began to choose the blander flavor for the comfort of the familiar taste.  That bitterness of "running scared" of what awaits us on that harder road; I know better than that, and I thank people like Will for reminding me of it. 

"The best days were the days that were full of work and people. The best nights were the nights when I went to bed sunburned and sore, with a light heart, a full stomach, and the knowledge that I had done a good thing well. I remember thinking: This is all I want. Let me not live a day past my ability to feel this way. Not an hour." - Cary Tennis

Being here with Steph, seeing friends from my time at the RNC and meeting new friends that will share my life over the next few years - my stomach is full with the sweetness of a sun on an unknown horizon.  This is all I want, and may I live not a day past my inborn desire to try the strange and exotic flavors of my life. Not an hour.  The rich flavors of friends, the enticing aromas of the unknown, these are my nourishment. May that hunger never wane.