Monday, August 09, 2004

The Waiting is the Hardest Part

So sang Tom Petty, about twenty years ago or so. Man, was he right. It has only been a few days since my last blog entry, and I can report that absolutely NOTHING has happened in the meantime. Sadly, this is once instance when something was supposed to be happening: I am supposed to get my medical/dental packet in the mail *any day now* so I can dash over to the various and sundry specialists I need to see. But... nothing. That's the Peace Corps for you. They're a government bureaucracy, so everything moves at a snail's pace. I believe I made quite clear in my last blog why getting this packet ASAP is so crucial, so I won't belabor the point here.

I've been thinking lately about the Peace Corps' attrition rate. I got to thinking about it when I was driving and doing some preliminary plans in my head. Very preliminary -- at this stage in the game, everyone who is destined for an assignment later in the year has a ton of things to figure out, like what to do with their car or many boxes of books for two years. But at this stage of the game, all that planning is just filler, something to occupy your mind while you wait for some information to trickle down from Washington, not anything you can actually act upon. Like I couldn't just go out and sell my car next week because I still have 3 months to go -- and that's assuming everything goes as planned. Like everyone else who is entering the Peace Corps or, I daresay, people who are still muddling their way through Training, information is rare and vague when it exists at all, and you spend a good deal of time with nothing but your fertile imagination running off possibilities and fantasy scenarios. So between fantasizing and planning and waiting, this period is very slow and *very* internal.

Where was I? I was doing some planning while I was driving, and part of me hesitated to sell my car. What if I get there and hate it and decide to leave early? Or my position is dropped and they can't find a replacement so I have to return early (it happens)? Or I get sick and have to return early? I would certainly want my car when I got back to the States. That line of thinking suddenly seemed very dangerous to me... I realized that, unless I was careful, I would be building the possibility of bailing on my assignment into my plans. And to do so, it seemed, would be like allowing a very quiet but very dangerous part of my psyche an easy avenue of escape. I know already from experience that volunteering for the PC involves several different mental stages. Once you actually arrive at your host country for training, the excitement switches from anticipatory to sensory -- you are immersed in a sensual and envigorating (and terrifying at times) experience that keeps your mind occupied day and night. But then, after a few weeks of training (anywhere from, I dunno, two to eight?) the newness starts to wear off a little and you start realizing that soon, very soon, you and these wonderful friends you made in training will be sent off in different directions to carve out lives of your own in remote corners of wherever-you-are. That means you'll be alone. Not "alone" as in nobody around, but "alone" as in nobody you can easily relate to around. The only American for dozens of miles, perhaps. This realization is paralyzing, and that's when I suspect most people who ET first get the germ of a thought that they could leave. A germ, yes -- just a little thought that begins in the back of your mind, so small you don't notice it at first as anything but a little discomfort and maybe homesickness. But soon it jumps the gap from subconscious notion to conscious one, and you find yourself entertaining the notion. At first you reject it and call yourself a wimp or that it's just homesickness talking or something, but soon that tiny single voice becomes a chorus in your head that sings anew every moment you are hot or busy or dirty or annoyed or exhausted, and that's nearly all the time at this point in Training, and all that shame you felt at first seems to melt away. How nice it would be to get away from these people you have to spend every damn waking hour with, to drive on the right side of the road, to eat something that isn't starch and starch and more starch, or to wash your clothes in a machine instead of a river. And then, next thing you know, you are wandering away from the others one night during what should be a fun time of celebration and you are staring at the moon and thinking, Yeah, maybe I should go.

So I was driving and planning and I realized that, unless I was careful, I would be building the tiny little voice of doubt into my plans from the start. Leaving myself the option of returning if things get too bad could very well lead to me doing just that. By saying "I can leave if things get too bad," I leave open for interpretation what constitutes "bad" and that negative, pessimistic, lazy, pampered part of me will grab hold of that loophole like a lawyer and begin the work of getting back to America and my comfort zone before I've even had a chance to really get to know the place I'm sent. However, I also realize that not allowing myself the option to leave "if things get really bad" isn't a good thing either -- if things really do get bad I need to give myself permission to leave. It's all about striking a balance.

So I wonder, then, how many people applying for the Peace Corps do exactly what I've described and build into their plans the germ of doubt that will one day grow into a full-fledged desire to ET?

I hate to sound this do-or-die about it, but I honestly think of this "second chance" as a pretty important litmus test, if you will, of my maturity. Last time I was there, I bailed because I missed my girlfriend, a relationship that wasn't even healthy to begin with, and if I hadn't been so quick to jump out of there the distance might have really helped me realign my priorities and help me see that relationship for what it was. And as I drove, this got me to wondering if I might have gotten my reasons for leaving the Peace Corps backwards last time. At the time, I told myself that 90% of why I wanted to go home was because I realized I could either have the Peace Corps or my marriage, but not both. Part of that statement was true. I told myself that the remaining 10% was from fear that I wouldn't be able to do the job they switched me into (elementary education, when I had NO experience in teaching or with children at that point in my life), displeasure at my post (I was going to be living in one of the poorest areas of all the Eastern Caribbean, with no water and spotty power, while others on Dominica would be living in town with air conditioners and cable t.v.), and the dread of having to do two more weeks of a homestay (I always feel like I'm imposing). I wonder, though, if it might be that those other reasons were what was behind my desire to ET, and I allowed my heartbreak at missing Michelle to become the convenient excuse I needed.

Well, whatever might have been the case, that part of my life is over. I want to use that experience as a way of armoring myself against all the difficulties I know I can expect this time. I know that at some point I'll feel homesick, tired, hot, hungry, etc. and I don't want to allow the nagging doubt to even enter my mind. I want to be strong this time.

I'll sell my car.


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