Monday, July 25, 2011

Soundtrack to My Service

I’ve found music to be a friend during the pivotal moments of my Peace Corps service. Sometimes it’s an entire song, other times a lyric, a guitar chord or a single beat that has stirred my soul into finding a companion in a melody. A companion that smiles, sighs, loves, greaves and dances with my thoughts.

It’s Tupelo Honey while sitting around a fire at Kamille’s. It’s overhearing Eswin’s phone chime out Total Eclipse of My Heart with Amanda and Trish during Spanish class. It’s Barrett Bumpas channeling Bob Dylan on his guitar. It’s Damien Rice thundering through my veins while rain pounds my tin roof. It’s a classroom full of adolescents dancing to Thriller.

I’ve also realized that my most introspective hours are those spent alone, lost in my own thoughts: on the bus, sweeping my yard, in my room late at night or on a morning run. We all need these solitary moments to process life. During these occasions, I often turn to my iPod for company. Once in a while, my player will shuffle to a song that resonates so perfectly with my state of mind that the melody is forever married to that moment.

Now, as I reflect upon the past two years, I have found it fitting to return to the tunes that have accompanied me through my service to help me make sense of it all. I want you to be able to relive these musical moments with me, so we are going to try a little experiment. Play the below and continue to read. Hopefully, I’ve timed this correctly. And as a tip, if you get to a lyric I’ve written down, try to read it along with the song.

Sorry for those of you with a slow internet connection.

I first want to take you back to the summer of 2005 so as to explain what brought me here in the first place. I was an advertising executive still “green behind the ears”, as Bob Wilson, one of my clients and the owner of Fresno Lincoln Mercury, would say. At the time, I was proud of my work accomplishments and loved the people I worked with, but felt a persistent emptiness. I had an unsettling feeling that my career path was not aligned with my passions or aspirations. Every morning I’d get up, get dressed, drive to work, do the daily grind, drive home, eat, sleep and repeat. One particular afternoon, while stuck in traffic (which was every afternoon), the speakers on my Mercury Mariner sang:

I got no time
That I got to get
To where I don't need to be

Those lyrics grabbed me. I, like Jack Johnson, felt lost in a meaningless hustle. Why was I dedicating my time and energy to selling cars? My discontent stemmed from working towards something that I wasn’t passionate about. It was terribly ironic that I was “moving metal” when I, in fact, felt everyone should be riding public transit.

Soon thereafter, I found a new job on the Lexus account, convinced that the Japanese manufacturer was more environmentally conscious, and therefore, I’d get more satisfaction out of my work. Foolish me. The switch was futile. I needed out of automotive advertising all together.

In 2009 I applied to the Peace Corps and as soon as the acceptance letter arrived, I said good-bye to my working life as I had known it.

The switch was not always easy. Many people questioned (especially my grandfather), “Why on earth would you quit a perfectly good, well paying job to join the Peace Corps?” It didn’t help that we were in the midst of the recession. People were getting laid off and I was quitting?

I had many long conversations with my mom reassuring her that the Peace Corps was not a dead end, but a means to a new beginning. I remember her saying, “I know you’re going to end up fine, I just want you to think critically about this decision. Just make sure this is really what you want to do with your life.”

Her concern was not unfounded. I have a history of dabbling. When I was eight I was the only girl in jazz class shuffle-ball-changing in tennis shoes because I had to participate in an activity for five months before she would purchase any specialized equipment. She was worried that the Peace Corps was just another phase. During this time, I resonated with the lyrics:

I can say I hope it will be worth what I give up
If I could stand up mean for the things that I believe

I eventually convinced my mom that I was making the right decision and she gave me her whole hearted support, as she always has (love you, mom).

In Guatemala, I was content with the change of course my life had taken. Still, progress with work and integrating into my community was slow. I had to take the good with the bad. I had days when I felt alienated and days that I beamed with joy. Through the process I learned a lot, but it took returning to Guatemala from a trip to the U.S. to let my experiences distill.

It was August and after having spent weeks in California, the bus ride back to site was particularly poignant. The difference between my life in The States, my life as it used to be, and the new life I lived was shocking but satisfying. I sat on that bus, listening to music and stared out at the lush green flood planes that make up the landscape en route to Casas Viejas. I reveled in the realization that over the past year I had become more patient, more humble and had a better understanding of what really matters in life. I had undergone a personal growth that I would never have achieved in my prior life in Los Angeles. I knew that not many people would be able to relate to this, but I was OK with that.

I flashed through recent memories. My women’s group loving a salad recipe that didn’t include mayonnaise. School kids filing into my English class saying, “Good morning, teacher.” Adan teaching bookkeeping techniques that I had taught him to a new shopkeeper. A song on my ipod rang true:

Oh, This has got to be the good life.
This has got to be the good life
This could really be the good life.
Good Life.

And, it was. In that moment I knew that I had found the meaning and substance that was lacking in my work before the Peace Corps.

The months continued to roll by and I became more and more involved and immersed in my community. I had time to strengthen the relationships I had made with friends in my town and in the Peace Corps community. I had found my place, realizing:

You're already home where you feel loved

Now that I have found a home in Guatemala and a family in the people of Casas Viejas, the thought of leaving is bitter sweet.

This fall I start graduate studies at Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs. Another two year adventure awaits me. I’ll be graduating with a Masters in Public Administration with a concentration in Urban and Social Policy. I want to focus on the roles energy and the environment play in urban development (especially in transit).

No more selling cars. See, mama, not just a phase.

Truth is, I have mixed feelings about the transition from Guatemala to New York City. I think I am underestimating the emotions I have tied up in this beautiful country that I have called home for the past 24 months. It's hard for me to believe that this is not going to be my life in a few weeks. That it'll never be the same. This realization is making me consciously appreciate the little time I do have left, though. It's hard to balance these emotions with the excitement of my life’s next step.

I won't be moving back to LA and I can't expect things to be the way they were when I left two years ago- everything has changed, myself included. I’m going to have to make myself a new home. Once again find my place in this crazy world. Luckily, my brother, sister and some great friends live in the city and nearby in Philly (that’s you, Jules). I'm looking forward to strengthening those relationships. I was processing all of these thoughts while sweeping the dust from my kitchen floor when Bob Dylan asked me:

How does it feel
How does it feel
To be without a home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?

I guess I’m a little scared, but mostly excited. New York holds future friends, more learning and a new type of discovery.

Still, I will forever appreciate the simple, comfortable life I have led here. It may take time to get used to not hearing small Guatemalan children yell my name while walking the streets. I’ll miss Marena’s shucos and Doña Leti’s fresh cheese. Flor will no longer be there to greet me through a chain link fence. The Super Niña bus driver won’t wave to me on my morning runs. I won’t be gifted mangos by the dozen.

I’ll have to get used to the cold and the bustle of city life. But, if I ever need to return to Guatemala, I’ll put on these songs and listen to:

them when (I) forget (what I) left here.

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