Sunday, September 26, 2010

Possibly last post

I've been putting this off for a while now, because I wanted to do right by what may be my last post to this blog. But I've given up on the idea of "doing it right." As most of you probably know by now, my Peace Corps service has finally ended and I'm back in America; at first I thought I knew exactly what I wanted to post for this entry, some of which I will put down but most of which I'll dispense with. I want to explain a bit of what I'm feeling now that I've been back for 2 months.

But first, part of the thing that I thought this post was going to focus on. I logged my first few thoughts and observances when my flight landed in New York (I was connecting from New York to Ohio, where I visited a dear friend). Here are a few of those listed below:

  • Overwhelming joy upon stepping out of the plane onto home soil, followed by amusement at the pushiness of an American standing in line at Customs.
  • The mixed smells of cleaning products, baked goods, and air conditioning somehow mingling to create that familiar airport smell.
  • Actual help and information from the man and woman at the security/info desk; real friendliness and a sincere attempt to help me out.
  • Overly stressed woman getting help at the Southwest counter and being a raging bitch.
  • The cacophony of voices that I can't block out as white noise because they're in my own language (possibly just brought on by severe sleep deprivation).
  • The guy next to me considering taking back his order because he wasn't satisfied (voch inch chi!).
  • Forced courtesy from anyone behind a counter.
  • Someone asked me if someone was sitting in the seat next to me; I thought "azat e" and then had to translate it in my head into English. Oh situational Armenian...
But now I've been back for a couple months, have seen people I wanted to see (though not all and not for long enough), and am working again and I've begun to have a rush of feelings sweeping over me. This is particularly strange to me because I thought that I had adjusted incredibly quickly and that I was pretty well settled back into life here. While I think that's still mostly true, I think it's possible that the freshness of it all when I first got back made me forget most of my life in Armenia. I was so busy seeing people and doing things that I didn't have time to reflect on that part of my life that is now "finished."

I put "finished" in quotes because I actually find that a terribly inaccurate word for what I want to portray. That puts too much finality on an experience that has changed me in many ways, most of which I'm probably not conscious of. So much of my life in Armenia will always be with me; how I think of the world, of people, of my place in life has been shifted because of my time there. To say that that part of my life is "finished" is true in the sense that I'm no longer there, but it's not true in the sense that part of who I am now is formed by having lived in Armenia.

Now that I've settled back into a more stable life 2 months in (stable in the sense that I've got a job that is regular and I at least know what I'm doing most days from now until election day; not stable in the sense that after election day I'll be shifting to something else, I know not what) I'm starting to be able to get a sense of what's missing. I'm especially cognizant of this because it's starting to turn toward Fall. Here in the Southwest (where I'm working) that doesn't mean a whole lot, since it's still 30-31C outside most days, but just the dates remind me. Fall and Winter were among my favorite times in Armenia; this should be odd, considering how difficult winter can be in Armenia, but I'm a cold weather person and I love the smells of Fall and Winter and the feel of biting cold wind on my cheeks. Many of my most treasured memories--as well as many of my first memories--from Armenia came from times and events that occurred October-March: Halloween, all-vol, Christmas, New Years, hiking Aragats in February. I have such treasured memories from those times, that certain things will set me off longing for Armenia. For example, every single time I listen to The Decemberists' "Hazards of Love" and "The Crane Wife" albums, I'm reminded of driving from Yerevan to Vanadzor or Vanadzor to Gavar in the Fall and Winter and listening to one or the other of those albums on loop. They're so viscerally associated with those times, that just listening to them makes me remember how long it will be until I can do that again.

It's apparently going to take more time to adjust than I first expected, and not in the ways I expected. So many people talked to us about how shocking it was to go into a supermarket, or drive again, or just be in American culture. But those are not the things that I find difficult to deal with, at all; it's the knowledge of an experience that has ended that's hard to internalize.

It's always hard to adjust to leaving a treasured place, I'm finding. It happened when I moved back from Indiana to Idaho in 2006. It happened when I went to Armenia. And it's happening now that I've left Armenia. There are things that set me off in sadness that I can't control for; I suppose I could control for some of the music that sets me off, but I like it too much to do that. I also need to do these things, listen to this music, remember those times in order to give myself space to accept what I'm missing and enjoy again what's new.

As I said before, this may possibly be the last post to this blog. But I can't say for sure. I had almost given up on the idea of posting a last entry until these feelings started to hit me. I may yet again need this space to make sense of this new life.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

All these stories

One of the things I will most most dearly is my little outdoor balcony. I'm on the top floor of my building and have a nice view of the courtyard, all the windows of the other apartment building, and the street. It only holds about 3 people maximum, is a bit grimy, and the railing is bowed out so that I feel it might give at any point (even if it is cemented solidly into the balcony), but I've spent a great deal of time out there. I have my morning coffee and oatmeal there in the summer, play my banjo on it in the evenings, sit with a book in the sunlight; but what I do most often is just watch people and events.

If you've ever seen the film Rear Window--and if you haven't, you must--you'll remember that much of the movie is simply Jimmy Stewart's character watching the windows from his apartment, and all the events that transpire during the watching (one in particular, of course). I've often joked to people that much of the purpose of my watching is waiting for a murder to happen so that I can recreate Rear Window, but it really is just a joke. The truth of it, as I was reminded today, is that what happens on almost any given day is much less eventful than even the mundane things that Stewart's character sees.

I was reminded of this because today happened to include something much more out of the ordinary of what I usually see, but even that was not terribly exciting. You see, someone died quite recently in the building across from me. I know this because one of things that people here do when a person dies is to display the lid of the casket outside the stairwell of the building to show people where to go, and to indicate that someone died there. I watched as several people got out of a car to go in. The men stopped before going inside to tuck in their shirts, and finish the last of their cigarettes, and then the story ended for me.

You see, much of my watching is of incomplete stories, snippets here and there really. I see women doing laundry, children playing in the courtyard, old men playing chess, young men smoking and eating samitchka (sunflower seeds), and lots of people doing just what I'm doing--sitting at their balconies or windows watching everyone else. The truth is that there are so many stories going on in each window, but all of us are just getting little pieces here and there from what we can see going on at the edges of the window--I suppose I could weave that into some larger metaphor, but I'd rather not be trite. Let's just leave that as literal as its intended.

I spent a lot of time, especially in my first year, trying to find out some way to go out and "make a difference." I don't want to disparage that, of course, because I still am trying to do that even as I leave. But there have been these large gaps of time where I wasn't doing much of anything in that regard, and I spent a lot of time resenting that, as we all do. Peace Corps often gets set up as a "go out and save the world" kind of mission; and of course, development is a big part of what we're trying for here. But what took me a long time to realize is that the gap times are every bit as important as the busy times. As I've come to accept these periods of inactivity, ones that are unavoidable here, I've also spent a lot more time just watching, and listening. I don't think that's something I used to do enough, and I worry about being able to do it when I go back (but not too much; I don't want to spend much of the time I have left here worrying about the future). I only ever got to see bits and pieces of these stories, but even the most every day, redundant parts I've enjoyed watching.

I have now just about a month left of my little balcony. I'm still semi-waiting to see that murder and be sucked into the plot of Rear Window. But mostly I'll just keep enjoying watching these little pieces of peoples' lives.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Lazy Sunday

A little taste of my life.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Conceiving of two years

I've been thinking a lot lately about the idea of actually going home. I have about 3.5 months until I get on a bus or in a car to Istanbul and finish my time living in Armenia. I don't say that I'll be leaving Armenia for the last time, because I don't think that's in any way true; I have no doubt that I will return to visit in the future, though I will almost certainly never again live here. This knowledge of an impending finish weighs on me--in a good way--and constantly brings me to try to understand what two years here has meant. This is no simple task; I think it's impossible for anyone to understand what two years of their life means to them in a way that is both meaningful and short. I know that I'll have to come up with something to tell people that can be distilled into about 30 seconds-1 minute, either for jobs or for friends, because realistically most people aren't actually interested or don't have the time to hear me talk for hours about my Peace Corps experience. If I think it's difficult to conceive of this experience myself, it's almost impossible for anyone who hasn't done it, or something similar, to really grasp what it's like.

But this post isn't really about getting other people to conceive of it. That's some part of what this whole blog is about, though I haven't been terribly dutiful in recounting the vast majority of my experiences (something for which I am regretful of, but I am simply unable to get myself to keep a journal, either on paper or on the internet, that is regular and thoughtful). This is more about trying to think a bit more for myself about what all of this has been about.

I find myself especially cognizant of this problem because I just passed my second birthday in Armenia. One of the ways in which I initially thought of my Peace Corps experience was in how old I would be when I got out of Peace Corps. It was really the only way in which I could meaningfully understand what I was about to get myself into, and so the idea that I went in at the age of 24 and will come out at the age of 26 is still very powerful in a nebulous sort of way (in that while it does set at least some boundaries on a time frame for the experience, it lacks any sort of qualitative understanding). When I actually turned 26 on Friday, the idea of two years really hit me again, because two years is both a long time and a short time in relative terms. This will be the longest time I've been employed in the same organization since high school (during which I worked at a hardware store for about 2.5 years or so), but only half the amount of time I spent working towards a degree in college; two years in a life that will be many times that long is practically nothing, but the sheer amount of different experiences and perspectives I've had makes these two years incredibly substantial and formative for the course of that life.

I've found it useful in the past to think of my life as being composed of a series of several different lives. By my count, I've lived about 4.5 different lives at this point, demarcated by times in which my life changed drastically enough to provide an entirely different and new set of experiences, friends, and perspectives. The first life for me was composed of the time I could begin remembering up to the time that my parents stopped working at the fishing resort in Canada (this was so important because my brother and I, and my parents, of course, spent all summer long up at the resort, and so my brother and I relied heavily on each other for friendship and fun, seeing as there were no other kids there long term); the second was from that point in time up until the end of high school and leaving for college (again, this is important because summer time is so central to a kid's life, and being in Idaho for the summer meant a whole new slew of experiences and friendships); the duration of college until graduation; the abortive half a life in which I went off and worked on campaigns for a period of time, which opened my world up in ways that are very important for me, but which I stopped short by going back and finishing up a second degree after the campaign season was over; and of course these two years of Peace Corps. All these experiences have been so vastly different, and so incredibly formative, including entirely new sets of friends and major changes in how I think about my world. In the context of a separate lifetime, it's a daunting task to try to conceive of my experience here, because there has been so much that has happened during it.

At this point, it seems I've talked a lot about how to frame the challenge, but have not been terribly substantive in actually beginning to distill this experience. But I guess this is at least a first step. This will likely be the challenge of the rest of my posts to this blog, as it will be to the remaining 3.5 months of my service.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Further thoughts of change

In my last post, I described my sense of chaos at the change of seasons, the feeling of not knowing how I'm going to adjust to this new change in life, in my established schedule, in what I cook and eat, even in the clothes I'm going to wear every day. It seems strange that this should happen, to tell the truth, because the regularity with which seasons change in life means that I should know already how things will go; and of course, in America I do know this, because the change of seasons means only a relatively small number of changes. But here, those changes are monumental, and affect most parts of my life in some way in a manner that I'm just not used to.

I describe this feeling as one of chaos, because I know sure how else to describe it. Maybe it's apprehension; maybe it's a bit of fear of the unknown (even though there are expectations even in the unknown) or simply a fear of change. I think apprehension comes closer than fear, but chaos just feels right. I can tell you where I feel it. I feel it in my chest, and sometimes in my throat. Right there in the center of my chest is a big ball of chaos that makes me stop at times. It tells me that things are about to change, but I can't yet do anything different until they do change, and then it tells me that what I'm used to is no longer acceptable at the given moment that it decides to manifest. I can feel its pressure as I try to breathe it out, and its unwillingness to go away until life finally gives in and shifts.

It's not debilitating and it's not frightening and it doesn't stop me from living life. But it's there, and it rolls around, and it pokes at me. It tells me that I'm going to have to give up life in the way I'm used to it by now but it won't tell me just exactly how. It's messing with me, and I know it, so I look forward to the season getting on with its change and letting me go along with it.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Changing of seasons

It's starting to turn towards spring here in Armenia. The snow is quickly retreating from the mountains--though there wasn't a whole lot to begin with in these parts--the days are lengthening, and it's fitfully getting warmer. There's nothing particular about spring that brings this to mind, but I begin to feel a bit chaotic around this time of a season. The changing of the seasons anywhere that I am and in any season always seems to me to be a small moment of greater chaos in life (more than the usual) because it brings with it different expectations, different activities, different feelings. Here in Armenia I feel that especially strongly, but not just because these are all wrapped up with the knowledge that I'll be going back to America soon. I felt this way this time last year, and in fact feel it strongly on the cusp of every season's change here. I can feel that change happening inside me, as my emotions roll around and try to adjust to the new reality of what my days will start to be like, what sort of new schedule I'll be on. I have to remember at the end of this season that silence in the evenings--outside of the trucks rolling past--is only a function of winter, as I begin to hear kids playing in the courtyard. And I allow myself the pleasure of contributing to this new noise by sitting on my porch with the banjo.

I often find that I can clarify how strongly the change in seasons is for me in Armenia every time I remember "it's almost time for new vegetables and new fruits!" It's hard to describe in some ways, but the irony for me is that in a place where the culture doesn't change that much that it's the change in what I can eat that brings dynamism to my life. At any point in time in America, though things are constantly changing around me and my life is always in flux, I can and do eat a similar diet all year round. But in Armenia, it's gastronomy that changes my life. Spring's coming, and my mind wanders to thoughts of spinach, and spring lettuce, and zucchini. I'm trying to adjust to this new reality that what I'm cooking is about to move farther from what comes from a can, or from the nourishing potato and cabbage and onion.

But it's chaos! Where do I start?! How do I prepare for its arrival?! This coming abundance is simply too much to think about!

Every change in season brings about these feelings of an increase in chaos, even in America, but I feel it so strongly here, because it's among the few things I find that changes quickly here. When all the culture around me goes on in the same way it's gone on since I arrived in the country, it's the seasons that bring dynamism; it's their change that throws me off kilter.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Thinking about war and conflict

It's something I do a lot in my work here, seeing as I work at a peace NGO. There's a disturbing amount of it in this region, most of which never comes up outside of the few circles in which it's a concern. Ask yourself this: had you ever heard of South Ossetia or Abkhazia before last August? When I ask myself that question, the answer is no, but it's a conflict that's been seething to different degrees since the end of the Cold War. As is the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict; as is the Chechnya conflict (at least a lot more people know about this one); as is the Dagestan conflict; as are several other conflicts in the Caucasus. These conflicts have just been roiling under and sometimes above the surface for 20 years now, and so there's a lot for my NGO to do, and a lot to keep my mind occupied when I'm at work.

One of the primary ways that my NGO tries to conceive of conflict is through an individual lens, focusing on histories and memories. Conflict isn't something that we can really talk about in one way, because outside of statistics--number of bombs dropped, number of people killed, amount of territory taken or lost, dates of events--there's very little about the history of any war that's set in stone, because everyone experiences war in a different way; everyone develops unique and individual memories of a conflict that inform their own personal histories of a conflict. This can be, and often is, problematic for anyone working in the sphere of peace building, because how can you start to build peace in a conflict if you don't address the places that each individual is coming from? More than that, how can individuals understand the way towards peace if they don't understand the experiences of each other? It's this fundamental issue that we grapple with in our work, and so its the basis of much of what we've done so far; if we were historians (well, I'll call myself a historian) we'd probably call it a hermeneutic approach

I say all this above as a pretext for the rest of my post, just to set out where I'm coming from. I realized the other day that I had never really thought of this outside of the context of the society I find myself in. As absurd as it sounds, up until now I had thought of all the work we were doing, all the methods we were applying, as something that was applicable only to developing countries--surely, after all, my own country doesn't have the problems that Armenia has when it comes to war and conflict, right? And then, my director and I were talking the other day about how peace organizations often encounter so much resistance in their own societies for daring to work for peace; it suddenly struck me how negatively I view peace movements in my own country, and how often I dismiss them as absurd and ridiculous. I don't dismiss the idea of creating a more peaceful society as absurd, but so often I see the efforts of peace organizations and my first instinct is to look down on them as naive or counterproductive.

What I find myself constantly doing is thinking that somehow America can't benefit from the kinds of work that we do at my NGO, because we're so far "above" that--yes, we are a nation at war, but surely we're at a more advanced stage of war, one that demands different ideas about how to achieve peace, no?

Well, no.

If anything, I've come to think of this idea of histories and memories as among the most important methodologies for moving towards peace, especially because when I think of peace movements in the US the word "dialogue" is not in any way associated with them. I don't think of peace organizations in the US as trying to understand the histories and memories of broad swaths of people, nor as trying to bring society together to understand our individual histories together. And maybe it's because I've dismissed many of these organizations (Code Pink consistently comes to mind) for so long and so never see them doing these things, but I wonder how much we try to understand each other in America, and how much either peace organizations or organizations more accepting of war really try to understand each other. We're all operating on our own histories and our own memories, without going to too many lengths to understand those of others.

I feel that if there's anything I need to do better--and there's a great deal in my life that I need to do better--it's to start to broaden my understanding of my own memories and histories of war and conflict in America and to hear out those of others. Most of us are so insulated from it that that's hard to do, but the beauty of Peace Corps is that I'm constantly forced to reflect on my own country and I get to view it as somewhat of an outsider during these two years. So I'll keep thinking about war and conflict, but I'll stop believing that it's only something that touches the developing world, because my own country bears its scars in ways that too often remain invisible.