Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Sit, Sweat, Roll

Swaziland isn't exactly Bali but this seems familiar
Here I am at Mid-Service Medical, absolutely astonished and pleasantly surprised I have made it 15 months into my Peace Corps Service with (hopefully) minor damage done to my body/spirit.
I have been re-reading Liz Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love lately. If you are not familiar with the story, its about a recently-divorced woman in her 30's who gets a writing opportunity allowing her to live for a year in Italy, India and Indonesia learning about the pursuit of pleasure, devotion and balance, respectively. It's also about taking responsibility for your happiness and finding your own path through the world despite what society expects. It's not a road map to how to be happy, just like Into the Wild isn't a how-to guide on how to become self-sufficient, but it's an interesting memoir which I found funny and uplifting without being too Self-Helpy.

Ever since I gave up the pursuit of being a size 0 and 4.0-having Type A, I have been a pleasure-seeking creature who never says no to dessert. Life is short right? So, I felt like I had the lessons of "Eat" down pat, and joked that Peace Corps was going to be one long "Pray" phase. In "Pray", Gilbert lives in an Ashram for 4 months learning meditation and begins to break down mentally. All of her insecurities, "residual demons" and other emoitonal vomit starts coming up, and she feels like she is regressing, not progressing, as a human. I used to think this was the hardest (read: most boring) chapter to read, but now I identify with it completely. And the beauty of it is, I think I, and many other volunteers I have spoken with, have kind of gotten past all that. You kind of have to break to rebuild. As a friend and I were recently joking about, It's not that we feel we have more issues than before coming, we are just aware of them. Does that mean we are ready for the pursuit of Balance? I hope so. A few of us were joking that Peace Corps is also three stages, which we dubbed "Sit", "Sweat", and "Roll". A lot of names got thrown out for being too crass (you can use your imagination), too self-deprecating ("Cry", "Complain", "Binge") or too cloying ("Succeed", "Grow"). I think our choices are totally accurate for the main 3 components of Peace Corps.


Chillin' on the rocks in Khiza!
Perhaps, not as glamorous as "Eat", "Sit" is the first stage of Peace Corps service, beginning on Day 1 of Staging when we sit through hours and hours of flipcharts and tedious Powerpoints for the first time ever which will then define our lives for the next 3 months of training. Excited to get out and be on our own, we get to site and have "integration" which is a time when we are not supposed to be working but simply sitting and observing. For many Americans, sitting is very hard, maybe the hardest part of Peace Corps. We are conditioned to be productive, busy, "doing" creatures who evaluate our self-esteem by how much we achieve. This scares a lot of volunteers who think that they will get to site and have "nothing to do" but wallow in the stillness. My advice is to bask in the stillness. I talk to friends in America who work long hours day in and day out and while sometimes having to technically be working 24/7 is difficult (like when you are very sick and taking a bus to get to the doctor and someone wants to talk cross-culture, guess what, you are still working), it's still the only time in many of our lives we will have such an unstructured and personalized schedule. In "Sit", I learned to do a lot of things I never really had time for, like build (extremeley rudimentary) furniture, meditate, and learn to garden. I read thousands and thousands of pages of books I had always wanted to read and listened to countless hours of radio broadcast. Most importantly, I learned to slow my pace down (okay let's be honest, it was never that fast to begin with, but I learned to cultivate my slow pace). The tortoise will not only go the distance in Peace Corps Swaziland, they will thrive, and probably see mental health benefits manifest to boot. The hare risks unsustainably initiating projects without thoroughly getting to know their site or even burning out from an exhausting first year. I recommend you learn to appreciate the Mediterranean lifestyle of  "Il Bel Far Niente", the beauty of doing nothing. (I'd also recommend "The Lazy Manifesto" which has a Zen vibe of "do less, then do even less").


No transport for hours. Cold. Pouring. Hungry. Barefoot. Have to wear Yankees gear.  This is "Sweat" for sure.
  I use the verb "Sweat" the way some people console, "don't sweat the small stuff". Little do those sympathetic people know how microscopic a shistosome is, or how a tiny hole in my roof can cause a huge mess during a cyclone. I also use the word sweat as in the physiological sensation that happens the second you wake up in the morning from November to February. The middle part of service involves a bit of struggle, toil, cancelled meetings, frustration and other unfortunate events that are natural in this part of the adjustment cycle. This seemed to coincide for many with their first summer, but not for everyone. The honeymoon period of Peace Corps fades as the Chaco tan-line darkens. We start to see how service will be like but seem to run into roadblocks with counterparts, don't yet have vacation days to spend and always seem to be broke. Bookshelves collapse and we stand in our hut and whimper, "really?" to no one. The gas tank runs out on Christmas Eve and you can't catch transport to fill it for 3 days. I think that "Sweat" is the kind of thing that is incredibly satisfying to get through, makes you better for having conquered but isn't always enjoyable in the moment, like a Spin class. This period was interspersed with lots of fun stuff too, but it was treading through the murky waters of the challenging stuff that made me look back and say, "damn. I came a long way". At the end of Gilbert's stay at the Ashram, she meditates for an hour outisde in the Indian heat getting bitten by mosquitos and after everything she had been through, she learned to compartamentalize her frustration and just be in the moment. Peace Corps wouldn't be awesome without this phase, and it makes "Roll" possible.


On top of Sibebe, largest granite out crop in the world, all because the internet was broken at the office :)
 "Rolling with it" is the name of the game for 1 year and on. As Lao-tzu says, "Practice not doing and everything will fall into place". My Make recently remarked that "Hawu! You are so busy now, just like Bongiwe and Sabelo (previous PCVs) after one year, how does everyone know to call you?". It's a wonderful feeling as the next group comes in and you realize that you actually do have stuff going on, you are integrated, and you have way more good days than bad ones. Also, the bad stuff that happens doesn't knock you down in the same way. I feel much more like one of those inflatable car dealership advertisement dudes that deflate briefly then pop right back up. That's how I feel now. Something goes totally not according to plan, and I just roll. For example, I travelled all the way from site to Mbabane, a solid 5 1/2 hours, to use the internet at the office and it was down. Rather than get all bent out of shape, I decided to scrap my plans of office work and hike Sibebe instead, which ended up being an incredible day. Another night recently, I couldn't fall back asleep which was extremely agitating, but then realized it was the night of the Perseus Meteor shower so I made some tea, sat on a rock on my homestead and watched maybe 25 meteors shoot and fall in a sky unobstructed by electricity until 5 AM. I had never seen anything like it! So as projects and counterparts seemingly fall out of the sky for me, I have found myself pretty busy but still have my "Sit" days reading an entire novel or lying on my couch and definitely my "Sweat" moments.

I hope many of y'all have found that you are rolling with it, and if you aren't there yet, try more sitting. It'll happen, eventually. Here is a quote from the end of the book as a little food for thought: “Happiness is the consequence of personal effort. You fight for it, strive for it, insist upon it, and sometimes even travel around the world looking for it. You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestations of your own blessings. And once you have achieved a state of happiness, you must never become lax about maintaining it. You must make a mighty effort to keep swimming upward into that happiness forever, to stay afloat on top of it.”

Speaking of food for thought, I am getting increasing impatient to land in Rome (69 days but who's counting?) and get to "Eat" once again.

"I'm learning some amazing moves from this guy" - Dee, Always Sunny
Random Fact of the Week: I have been having such vivid food dreams lately, which are better than absolutely harrowing and emotional zombie apocalypse dreams where I have to contemplate the nature of life and death, but I would do just about anything for a twist in a cone with rainbow jimmies.

1 comment:

  1. Kayla - i absolutely love your blog. It's really great content and very well written! I'm loving the detailed analysis not only of the people/land but also the inner workings of your mind while you experience such a wonderful yet taxing journey. Super insights on life, and you're right - I think we all need to slow down.

    I'd send you a twist w/ sprinkles if I could, but it'd totally melt 10 minutes into its voyage.

    Stay happy!

    Michelle Cohan