Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Throwing Yourself Out There

Joining the Peace Corps at age 42 was not something I did on a whim, in fact there’s not much I do that doesn’t involve a lot of planning.  The Peace Corps is something I’d thought about since I was a young kid, but it never seemed to to be a good fit.  I first wanted to join in the early ‘70s after my Godmother and her family returned from their service in Kenya.  Unfortunately, I was only 6 or 7 at the time and there was this annoying age requirement that I didn’t quite meet.  Right after college, when most people entertain the idea, I was preoccupied with health issues that required serious medical attention.  Moving to a developing country was just not an option, so I didn’t even consider it.  When my health improved in my mid-twenties, I soon found myself with both a career and a family.  We lived in an idyllic setting, in the country surrounded by close friends.  Life was good; joining the Peace Corps was far from my mind.  But then, in the spring of 2005, I had one of those horrifying moments that one hopes are only reserved for fictional characters in heart-wrenching movies.  My husband came home from a weekend away and told me that he was leaving me for another woman.  This kind of news changes your world and my life inevitably took a dramatic turn.  The ensuing details are irrelevant at this point, but that single moment in time became a catalyst for several years of change, and that change has been rather remarkable.
The insecurities that surfaced after my marriage dissolved wreaked havoc with my emotions for a while.  It took some time, but I learned to embrace my newfound feelings of up-rootedness and to appreciate them for the new opportunities they had to offer. In sorting through how to start my life over again I learned to take chances.  I quit my job, found interesting work that I really cared about, and even let myself love again.  These were huge steps for me.  I was out of my comfort zone and, amazingly, instead of being frightened about my future, I began to feel enlivened and hopeful.  A new chapter was unfolding. The thing with taking chances, however, is that they don’t always work out.  Because my new relationship and job were intertwined, when one failed to thrive, so did the other and I found myself at a crossroads once again.
It was at this intersection that I thought long and hard about opportunities that had passed me by and the possibility of joining the Peace Corps rose to the surface once again.  Why not take the road not taken?  My health had been good for years, I was debt-free, and, clearly, I was in career and life transitions.  So, I took a chance and began the year-long process of applying for the Peace Corps.  To my delight, they accepted me and, in August 2010, I got on a plane to Senegal with 60 other soon-to-be volunteers and threw myself out into the world once again. I am emotionally stronger than when I arrived, more confident, and brimming with perspective about the world around me.  I’ve done more “living” in the past 7 years than I’d ever thought possible and I attribute that to deviating from my well-planned path.  Sometimes, life's detours are a blessing in disguise.
The Peace Corps experience has been challenging on many levels, but one of the things I’ve learned to appreciate from it the most is the clean slate it provided me.  Living and working in a community and culture that has very little resemblance to the life I’ve always known has been both difficult and liberating.  I can no longer measure my successes and failures on cultural norms.  Because of that, my self-doubt has dissipated and I’ve learned to venture forth without impeding my path with judgment.   How else would I be able to stand up in front of a classroom of teenagers and teach business skills in a language foreign to all of us, hold court with a village chief to discuss the opportunities available to his community, or lead our region's new governor in a tour of our compound and scholastic program?   This newfound confidence is a gift that I will treasure and happily take with me when I leave. 
A few weeks ago, my friend Philippa read through my recent blog posts and then sent me a long catch-up email.  Aside from filling me in on what’s been happening in her life lately, she complimented me on a little story I’d posted back in April and suggested I submit it to The Guardian newspaper in London, where she and I met years ago.  They run a weekly column featuring stories from around the world.  I thought, “Sure, what do I have to lose?” I did a little editing and sent it in the next day.  Within a week, I got notification that not only do they want to publish it; they want to pay me for it.  Alhamdulillah!  See?  Taking chances opens new doors.  Life’s lessons are already paying off.  

Here’s a link to the on-line edition:  http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/series/letter-from.  This will also run in the paper's print version on Friday, June 8th.  Perhaps the Queen will take a break from her Diamond Jubilee celebration and give it a read?

I’ve seen changes in other people with whom I’m serving, as well.   No doubt about it, this experience will change you. The majority of the other volunteers here are much younger than me, but in reality we’re all just a mixed bag of people and we’re all in this together.   We’ve experienced similar hardships and challenges and we’ve bonded over our shared commitment.  One thing that we now all have in common is a desire to explore the world, take chances, and throw ourselves out there with little fear of failure.  What’s failure anyway, but an opportunity to try again with a different approach?  As we wrap up our service and prepare to leave this country (or not), our plans for the immediate future are as varied as we are.  Some people will be going back to school, others will be traveling, and a handful will be staying here to continue working with the people of Senegal.  I am so impressed with and humbled to be a part of this amazing group of people.  Oh, the places we’ll go.

Aug 2010 Training Stage at our
Close of Service Conference
in Apr 2012 (Dakar)