Sunday, January 30, 2011

Lights Out: My Darkest Hours as a PCV

Over the rest of the weekend on which I wrote my last blog entry, I went on a great hike to the top of a butte, with my friend and fellow Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) Ben, in his site, less than 100 kilometers from my town. Our hike was similar to the hike I did in my site earlier this month, which I mentioned in my last blog entry. When we did the hike in his site, we had panoramic views of his town and the surrounding palmeries, or groves of palm trees there. Of course it was a good weekend, as we shared organic Oreos and discussed traveling each of us hopes to do in the future. I always enjoy the camaraderie of fellow PCVs. The next day, before I left, we had lunch in the palmerie. Like me, he lives just a couple blocks from a palmerie, which is essentially the equivalent of a huge, serene park.

The following weekend, which is now last weekend, I enjoyed the company of a dozen other PCVs for sessions in which we discussed future volunteer activities. And, of course, we had some time for fun, too! That night in that city, we went dancing at a nightclub. I delighted in dancing to songs by Michael Jackson and James Brown. As we were tearing up the dance floor, I asked my fellow PCVs, "Are we really in the Peace Corps???"

Then most of us, me included, left the city on Sunday last weekend. And while I anticipated a dip in my mood after such a fun--and social--weekend, I did not guard sufficiently against such a challenging decline in my spirits. Consequently, as the week wore on, despair crept into my being, and began to grow like a tumor.

As early as Wednesday the 28th, I was in dire emotional straits. One of my best friends in the U.S. had coincidentally just told me over e-mail that she wanted to talk with me on the phone. So, we spoke that night. Unsurprisingly, I felt better after I had talked with her about my feelings. Lesson learned: talk with a family member or friend, perhaps in the U.S., during my darkest spells during my Peace Corps service.

Yet the tenacious, merciless, relentless homesickness wouldn't leave me alone. Which leads me to share some of my spiritual beliefs. My mom has repeatedly suggested over the years that I read "The Screwtape Letters" by C.S. Lewis. She had even given me multiple copies of the book over the years. I believe it is not a coincidence that, after years of having that book on my various bookshelves, I finally started reading it last week. In the book, C.S. Lewis presents a series of advisory and didactic letters written by an important Under Secretary in Hell named Screwtape, to his nephew Wormwood, who has been charged with malevolently misguiding the soul of his particular "patient." I have long believed in guardian angels, as well as in the existence of those spirits who aim to derail us on our paths of, and toward, spiritual growth.

Consequently, I was not only enjoying, but, far more importantly, was finding spiritual nourishment in reading this particular book. And I do believe Lewis' words helped me to start to realize how this counterproductive construction, or overfocusing on, and lamenting, my homesickness, had been erected, and fortified in my mind. Early in the day on the 28th, I read how Lewis, writing from the point-of-view of Screwtape, described how God allows disappointment to occur at the beginning of all human undertakings. He wrote, it happens when a young boy, enthralled by ancient Greek tales, hunkers down to actually learn Greek. And when newlyweds begin the actual activity of learning to live together. In all areas of life, it is present at the shift from imagining to the task of actually doing. God takes this chance on us because God dreams of us freely serving God. God wants us to be free, so God will not carry us, instead allowing us to do it ourselves. And then Screwtape whispers to Wormwood, in effect, "And that's where we come in..." But perhaps not as destructively as they would like, as Screwtape then warns Wormwood, because if humans successfully navigate these early difficulties, they become far less emotional and thus much more immune to temptation...

With these words, implicitly deconstructing the spiritual morass into which I had fallen, which had been percolating through my consciousness, I continued through my day, not yet having realized their perfect applicability to my present situation. That night, I noticed that an object in my apartment, which had previously appeared to me to be a fan, now seemed like it potentially could be a heater. Given that I sleep in multiple layers of clothing and under multiple blankets each night, I was obviously interested in testing my new perception. Plugging it in and turning it on, I realized it was a fan--and a heater--which blows hot air out of it. Soon after making this discovery, the lights went off--as did all of the power in my apartment. I wasn't able to remedy the situation by visiting the fuse box, since I needed my neighbor's help to do that, and he wasn't home.

I laid back down in bed. As I lay in bed with the lights out, I first thought of Chris Martin of the band Coldplay when he sings the song "Fix You," asking in one of the lyrics if it could be worse. But what that lyric made me realize was that during the time that I had been previously lamenting my situation, it could have been worse--and indeed, DID turn worse, once I became unable to turn the lights back on.

And yet, at the time, I didn't realize how appropriate it was that I had thought of a lyric from that song. In that song, he sings that when you try as best as you can, but you're still not where you want to be, then tears gush down your face. Earlier that day, in the midst of feeling like I couldn't cope with my overwhelming homesickness, and thus couldn't possibly envision myself being here in Morocco for the rest of my term of Peace Corps service, I felt like a failure. I crumpled; I wilted, unable to stand emotionally. In my frantic desperation, I wept tears of powerlessness, helplessness, as I cried out in agony, feeling trapped, feeling that somehow I had to continue, yet feeling totally unable to continue.

But again, it was very appropriate that I thought of that song, because, in retrospect, I feel that what the song describes is what then happened: the Light will show you the way. It was as if someone had said to me, "I'm going to try to mend your soul."

I thought that if I ended my Peace Corps service early, I would regret it for the rest of my life. Upon arriving in Philadelphia last September for Staging, the orientation just before flying here to Morocco, I saw a poster advertising the Peace Corps. It advised, "Never have to start sentences with "I should've..." Of course the ad aims to get people to join the Peace Corps, telling them not to regret never having gone into the Peace Corps. But during my most recent emotionally trying period, I approached the message in that ad from a new angle. I thought that I didn't want to have to say sentences such as "I should've finished my Peace Corps service." And I thought of the lyric in that same Coldplay song, "Fix You," in which Chris Martin sings that if you don't try, you will never know who you were, who you could've been.

And I also thought of a particular part of the Gospel of Matthew. In Matthew 25:40, 42-45, in the afterlife,

The King will say,
"I was hungry but you would not feed Me,
thirsty but you would not give Me a drink;
I was a stranger but you would not welcome Me in your homes,
naked but you would not clothe Me;
I was sick and in prison but you would not take care of Me."

Then they will answer Him,
"When, Lord, did we ever see You hungry or thirsty
or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison,
and we would not help You?"

The King will reply:
"I tell you,
whenever you refused to help one of these least important ones,
you refused to help Me."

And so I thought that if I ended my Peace Corps service early, and stopped helping people here who are in such dire need, Jesus would ask me, "Why did you abandon Me?" I decided that I didn't want to be asked that question.

And so my angst and torment was quite easily extinguished. In an instant, as I considered Jesus' words, my mental state had been drastically transformed for the better.

And I thought it a very good idea to devote some thought to how I had gotten to such an unfortunate state. Listening to Bono of the band U2 sing the song "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of," I gained some insight into what had happened. In that song, Bono sings that he was not conscious, was partly asleep. He then sings that sinking down can be comfortable, that is, until you discover how deep you can sink.

I had not been paying attention to the functioning of my own mind. Tiny bits of an unhealthy type of longing, a clinging variety of homesickness, had slowly crept and advanced further and further into my mind that week. When it revisited me that night, after listening to that U2 song, I immediately responded with a force and clarity of mind I had been lacking during its previous visits. I thought, quite purposefully, strongly, and with conviction and fierce love, that I am here in Morocco to help people who want my help. The unhealthy, clinging, selfish type of homesickness immediately evaporated. While it revisited me with a vengeance, repeatedly, and in rapid succession, I responded the same way each time, finally forcing it out on its way.

Not that there is anything wrong or unnatural with feeling homesick. In fact, a certain type of homesickness IS natural. But not when it comes to dominate and dictate my actions, preventing me from helping others. Then it has grown into something which has to be dismantled, reined in. But better yet, prevent it from even getting to that point by being present, aware, conscious, deliberate and purposeful, and living with love. Lesson learned: Love is an extremely effective antidote to fear, loneliness and an unhealthy type of homesickness.

And in fact, the next day, I was very happy to spend time with those people here in my town who I have come to consider as my new host family, the family I mentioned in my last blog entry. As before, yesterday I was very happy to spend time with them, this time having a delicious lunch with them, which included a tasty vegetable tajine. Sharing their company, I was reminded of why I am here, to be making wonderful, loving connections with others.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Just enjoying the simple things in life...

Since my last post... there was New Year's Eve. Moroccans tend to think of the new year as starting at the beginning of the Islamic New Year, which does not align with the new year on the Gregorian calendar, as I mentioned in my last post. Nevertheless, on December 31, at the bakery in my town, I found, and bought, a cake which said "Happy New Year" in Arabic, French, and Tashelheit, a Berber language spoken in my town. So, one of my Moroccan friends and I ate some cake, along with a couple of pizzas from a cafe in my town, as we watched some musical performances in Arabic being broadcast from Casablanca. Ten seconds before the stroke of midnight, they started a countdown on the show we were watching. That was the extent of the fanfare of the celebrations on NYE.

Also since my last post, I moved into my own apartment. I have had the good fortune of not being the first PCV (Peace Corps Volunteer) in my site, in my town, several PCVs having preceded me in my town. Therefore, I have also been fortunate enough to move into the apartment which my immediate predecessor PCV vacated earlier in the month when I arrived in my site, in November 2010. So I am benefiting from all of the amenities which my predecessor PCVs in my town accumulated over the years, including furniture, appliances and accessories like blankets and sheets. So I have been extremely and frequently thankful for such blessings.

I also was thrilled last week when I met a great family I hadn't yet met. They sought me out because they've been friends with PCVs in town over the years. And they knew where to find me since PCVs have taken over the same apartment from each other for years. I am so happy that I met them because of their hospitality, because they're so friendly and welcoming. As I sat in their home enjoying soda and snacks with them, I was struck by how, even though I had never seen them before, I felt so comfortable that it seemed that I already knew them.

Earlier this month, I was also pleased when I went on my first serious hike since arriving here in Morocco. While I had been sitting at the cafe which I frequent most often in my town, I had looked straight across at the mountains, and had decided to hike to the top of the highest one on the particular ridge I admired from the cafe. When I felt that I had finally recovered from the cold I had had for weeks, I headed out on the hike. I think that the hike probably entailed at least 1,000' of elevation gain, and starting from the trailhead, it was at least a couple miles of hiking to get to the top of the mountain. Before that, I probably walked about a mile from my apartment to the trailhead.

And I've also been happy to be continuing to be tutoring and teaching English classes at the Dar Chebab, which doesn't always happen exactly as planned. Yesterday, there was a reception at the Dar Chebab, after which a group of some students and adults asked me to teach them some English, so I started spontaneously teaching them English.

And I've also just been enjoying random occurrences... like when I was playing chess with a young lad at the Dar Chebab, and then a girl walked in, and before she left, she gave him her phone number, then left. Not too long after she left, I won the game of chess. Usually he wins when we play. I couldn't help but thinking that he lost because of how distracted he was by just having gotten her phone number!

I also recently enjoyed teaching the same two Moroccans how citizens of the USA ride bumper cars, slamming into each other. There's a traveling mini-amusement park which has been in town for a while. Once in my town, I saw a group of Moroccans riding a bunch of bumper cars in a line, looping around in a line, and I couldn't resist the urge to demonstrate the US way of enjoying bumper cars, with a couple of my teenage Moroccan friends.

And then this morning, I was on my way to visit a fellow PCV in his town, and the grand taxi in which I was riding had to stop for a herd of goats crossing the road. Just enjoying the simple things in life...