Why? 

​Kubera iki?

Why?

Lately I’ve had some discouraging days. I’ve looked at other volunteers’ work and felt insufficient beside their accomplishments. I’ve looked at the tasks ahead of me and felt incompetent to complete them. I’ve looked at the students before me and felt incapable of teaching them. 

I’ve had to sit myself down and remind myself of the reasons I’m here—and, more importantly, of the reasons not to be here. I had to hold up a lot of expectations and desires, consider them, and then throw them out.

So without further ado, here are some reasons not to join the Peace Corps:

  • You want to save the world

Joining the Peace Corps sounds so heroic. It carries a connotation of sacrifices made for the good of others. It’s used in movies whenever a character needs a generic Good Thing in their past. It seems like a way to really make a difference. And honestly the stats showing PC’s impact on the world are impressive. But you won’t see those numbers. You’ll be inside the situation, one person facing billions, and the problems even just in your village will be too numerous and expansive for you to tackle on their entirety, never mind fixing the whole world’s issues. You can give important-sounding labels to your work—developing capacity maybe, or spreading literacy, or increasing gender equality—but really much of your service will come down to the everyday tedium of small, unheroic tasks done well. Cleaning your floor, or talking to a neighbour, or going to the bank, or getting to work on time. Don’t get me wrong: you will make a difference. But you will not save the world. 

Here’s what my world looks like at the moment. Observe that I have not saved it.
  • You need immediate affirmation in your job

If you need someone to tell you you’re doing things right as soon as you do them, this is not the job for you. While there are plenty of short-term accomplishments, PC jobs work toward long-term improvement. You may only see your triumphs in retrospect. You may feel like a failure in the moment. You may go a long time without anyone telling you you’re doing well, and you have to keep working, keep watching for the tiny successes that tell you you’re getting there, and keep trusting that one day you’ll look back and see that something you did somewhere along the line made some kind of a difference. 

  •  You need to feel competent

It doesn’t matter how much training you have in the sector you work in, getting thrown into a brand new culture and a brand new way of doing things and a brand new language will leave you feeling out of your depth. If, like a lot of PCVs, you have training related to your sector but not directly in the job you’re doing, it’s even worse. And even if you feel competent in your specific job, you’re likely to feel incompetent in a hundred other ways. Trying to start secondary projects. Trying to hold simple conversations. Trying to buy food. Some days I feel incompetent just walking next door. 

  • You can’t stand discomfort

PCVs joke about “Posh Core,” but it doesn’t matter if you got lucky and have running water, or electricity, or a real toilet—you will still be uncomfortable. You will be uncomfortable talking to strangers in a new language, or bargaining in the market, or refusing to hand out money on the streets. You will be uncomfortable on your mattress on the floor the first night, and in the latrine the first time you get food poisoning, and in your job on the first day when you don’t know the people and you don’t know the routine and you don’t know the work. You’ll be uncomfortable on busses, you’ll be uncomfortable interviewing local officials, you’ll be uncomfortable attending religious services or social functions. Every time you get comfortable, you’ll be pushed on to something else hard or scary or awkward. Peace Corps is a lot of things—rewarding, interesting, challenging—but comfortable is not one of them.

Also uncomfortable: having children stare in the window while I teach.
  • You don’t want to work outside your career path

It doesn’t matter if you specifically trained for the job you’re doing in PC, you’ll be doing something outside your career path. Trained as a teacher? Great. You’re set for your primary assignment, but you’ll probably also write grants for a new basketball court or have to study up on microfinance to help local women for your secondary project. Peace Corps isn’t a normal nine-to-five where you have a set job description and you do the thing you’re told to do and then go home. Your job description in PC is to do whatever your village needs, and to learn how to do it if you don’t know already.

  • You want to live a private life

There’s nothing private about PCV life. Everyone knows you’re a foreigner. People discuss you and stare at you and ask you invasive questions and watch you to see how you handle life. I’ve had people in awe because I knew how much to pay for a twege ride that I take every few weeks. I’ve had people ask me if the reason I’m single is that I don’t have “a functional body.” People in the street comment on my wardrobe and talk about me whether or not they know I can understand them, and when I brought home my puppy, ten different people appeared to see it, marvel that I want an animal, and ask me to describe her diet in detail. 

  • You want to do something you already know how to do

You don’t know how to be a PCV. It doesn’t matter what your previous training or experience is, because every site, every job, every service is different. There will be things you didn’t anticipate and things you have no idea how to handle. You’ll get really good at shouting out for answers from other PCVs or begging your neighbours for help. You’ll learn to improvise, to be flexible, to make it up as you go along, to take criticism, and to recognise indirect feedback from the people around you. You will spend enormous amounts of time doing things you’re not sure how to do, and you’ll discover you can do them.  

  • You want all-or-nothing results

I already said you can’t save the world. But life isn’t an all-or-nothing proposal. You can’t save the world. But you can make a tiny corner of it a tiny bit better for a tiny number of people. For the one student who really takes off, or for the one woman who learns how to keep her new baby healthy, or for the one group that benefits from your secondary project. If you join the Peace Corps, you won’t end poverty. You won’t singlehandedly educate a nation. You won’t change an economy in two years. But you will open up opportunities for a few kids. You will bring awareness of different cultures to people in your village and to people back home. You will be privileged to see incredible instances of hard work and determination and compassion and teamwork winning out over circumstances. And you will find that it’s an exchange—that for everything you give, the people around you give back in ways you never expected.

These kids excited about books despite being totally unable to understand them is one of those tiny ways I’m moving forward. Maybe someday these kids will be able to sit down with a book, read it, understand it, and enjoy it.

So yeah, sometimes I’m discouraged. Sometimes I feel like I’m not doing anything important. But the truth is I’m not here to do something important. I’m here to do a lot of little things well and to trust that some of those little things will make a difference. 

Do You Understand?

“Murabyumva? Murabyumva?”

“Do you understand? Do you understand?”

Eight of us in the classroom chorus, “Yego!”—“Yes!”— in response, even though we’re not sure we understand.

All day this has been going on. We’re saturated with new words, new sounds, new expressions. Our language trainers laugh and clap for us every time we muddle through a word, even when we mangle the foreign sounds with our clumsy American tongues.

Every few minutes, one of them grins at us and asks, “Murabyumva?”

Once in a while, too confused to fake it or maybe just brave enough to admit it, one of us answers, “Oya!”—“No!”

Sometimes, if we’re too overwhelmed to put together a reasonable understanding from the liberal flow of Kinyarwanda and never-ending pantomime our teachers use, they pause and patiently use English to explain the specific meaning of a word or the slight contextual difference between “muramuke” and “ijororyiza.”

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In the space of a few days, this has become my reality.

I’ve gone from feeling like a more-or-less adult to feeling like a child. My vocabulary is limited to basic greetings, “thank you,” “yes” and “no,” and “I want.” I don’t recognise most of the food. I don’t know the customs or the culture. I don’t even know how to ask for the bathroom (I asked someone, and she said, “It’s more complicated,” and didn’t tell me).

I’ve always liked to know everything—to be aware of all the ins and outs, to know the reasons behind everything, to be able to predict and control. I can’t do that anymore.

I don’t know the ins and outs of Rwandan culture or language. I can’t predict anyone’s responses or behaviour. I can’t guess what sounds should go together or how to rearrange my limited vocabulary into a different sentence than the formulaic dialogue on the board.

I’m ignorant and dependent—dependent on my host country’s goodwill and condescension, dependent on my teachers’ forgiveness for my unwitting faux pas, dependent on everyone else’s bilingual abilities to compensate for my own lack of language.

Now that I have no choice, I’m finding that there’s a kind of joy to it.

There’s a freedom I’ve seldom allowed myself in situations I can control. Freedom to make mistakes, freedom to forget, freedom to laugh at myself.

There’s a grace—from myself, from my peers, from my trainers. Grace that says, “Yego!” or “Ni byiza!”—“It’s good!”—when I fumble a word or fudge a phoneme. Grace that cheers for each attempt no matter the failure and acknowledges varying levels of skill as all equally acceptable.

There’s a beauty in the struggle to learn something wholly new, to create sounds that my tongue has never formed before, to admit my utter lack of knowledge and to sit humbly, repeating new phrases like a child, accepting smiles and laughter and wholehearted encouragement from my trainers.

There’s a beauty in not knowing. There’s a beauty in being helpless.

This position of complete vulnerability gives me a new permission to see every tiny step as a great achievement. Instead of criticising my insufficiencies until I reach some high benchmark, I’m allowing myself to celebrate each inch I gain.

In the space of a few days, I’ve become increasingly comfortable with not knowing. I’ve learned to ask dumb questions and then ask them again when I don’t understand answers. To pretend I know and trust that at some point in the future, I will. To say “Yego!” when the teacher asks, “Murabyumva?” and to believe that all the tangles of phonemes will separate themselves in time and that for now it is okay to repeat them half-knowingly, to scramble the mixed consonants, and to laugh and clap and call out “Yego!” for my smallest successes.

Remembering Why I Write

“Sometimes I think I should quit writing and do something simple, like neurosurgery.”

I give this answer from time to time when people ask about my writing or when I’m faced with a insurmountable writers block. Sometimes I say “rocket science” or “quantum physics” instead of “neurosurgery,” but the gist remains the same.

It gets a laugh out of people. More importantly, it deflects attention and saves me from admitting I feel inadequate.

sitting

This never happened before I became a writing major. Back in high school, I remember constant excitement as I switched between drafts, writing whatever caught my fancy at any given moment. I could ramble for hours about my ideas, and I proudly finished draft after draft and filed them away for revisions. Publishing hovered in the future somewhere, waiting for the day I had edited something to my satisfaction and found an agent, or whatever it was you had to do to get published. I didn’t know. I was happy and confident.

Now I’m a writing major. Professors expound on the near impossibility of getting published and preach the importance of racking up bylines—any bylines, in any genre—because nobody will take an unpublished author seriously. My files are stuffed with scrapped drafts, “need five more revisions” novels, and short stories with long rejection notes.

My files are also filled with publications—but not as many as I’ve learnt to need. More people read my writing now than ever before in my life, but I’m less content than ever before. I’ve been taught I need more, always more. And someone else always has more impressive numbers or more exciting bylines than I do.

This week, a couple people wrote to tell me they appreciated my writing, and suddenly I saw my life in perspective. I don’t write for faceless numbers. I write for people—people I care about.

I write because words are a gift I want to pass on. Because other writers gave voice to my own fears and dreams. Because if I can touch one person’s life in even the minutest way—if I can bring about a single smile or let a single person know they’re significant—I’ve accomplished my purpose.

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Writing isn’t about getting published or developing a fan base. It’s not about being the best or having the most bylines. Writing is about loving words and sharing ideas, working out impossible dreams and inspiring conversation. My writing is an extension of me, not the other way around, and that’s a vital difference. I define my work. My work does not define me.

I write for the joy of the language.

So this post is for the artists who crave recognition: someone sees you. Even if it’s one person, you serve a purpose. Your efforts are valuable if you inspire a single new thought, even if the new thought is your own.

It’s for the writers who face rejection slips: your words matter. Remember why you write.

Don’t write for a byline. Write for the joy of the language.

 

Lessons From Failing NaNoWriMo

November ended last week, and my word count is 23,421.

See anything off about that number? Like, maybe, that the goal was 50k and I’m under half that?

Also, are you remembering that I’ve written twice about doing NaNo and how to write a novel in a month?

It’s time to follow up on those—because 23,421 words is the closest I’ve ever gotten to “winning” at NaNo, and I don’t regret that. I think I learn more from “losing” every year than I would from winning.

I learn that writing is not one word after another, but a hundred words after a hundred others, doubting each one but forcing it out anyway.

the_written_word_by_d_cubed90

I learn that writing takes time, which I scratch out of the walls of my schedule, stretching seconds like stiff muscles and borrowing minutes from tomorrow, next week, next month. It’s a sacrifice—to appease the writing gods, like some pagan ritual, I sacrifice my sleep, my energy, sometimes my sanity.

I learn that 50k is not a number, but a place. Not, as I thought, a palace for worthy writers place at the end of a torturous pathway, but instead a hut partway up the mountain, treacherous in itself because it tempts weary writers to sleep instead of finishing the journey.

I learn that each writer is different. Like runners who excel at different events, writers are unique, each most productive in a different setting—and “productive” is itself an arbitrary word whose meaning changes for each writer in each season. There are the sprinters, fuelled by enthusiasm, who write the first half of the novel before week one ends. There are the marathoners who put one word after the other, consistent, steady, who don’t look flashy but will reach the finish line as others drop out. And there are those who will never cross a finish line to cheers but will keep moving, not for the win or the applause, but for the love of the process.

I learn that something effective for someone else may be ineffective for me. Despite all the advice in the world, only your words can carry you from prologue to epilogue—one letter after anther, a cluster of curves and lines and then a space, and then another cluster of curves and lines.

And I learn that my purpose is not to follow great writers’ footprints and hope I end up in the same place, but to make my own footprints; not to reach some glorious peak, but to see the tiny glories around me with each step. My purpose is not to be one of the great authors—my purpose is to be me. A different me with every step, but still, in the end, me.

As long as I’m still me, one word after another, whether I write 10k or 50k, I win.

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Apologising is (almost) the Scariest Thing Ever

I think I filled my quota of scary things this week.

I made an appointment and went to a doctor-type-person all by myself–and I am terrified of doctor-type-people, official-looking paperwork, appointments, and the smell of antiseptic.

I also filled out a graduation application and began the process of hunting down all the necessary people for signatures–and I am terrified to see my entire education laid out in black lines on white paper.

Oh, and I apologised to a friend.

Asking For Forgiveness

More than anything, I am terrified of admitting weakness. I fear the emptiness of the freefall from complacency and justification to vulnerability and admission. Somehow the slight chance you’re already over it because my offence resulted from an innocent oversight feels safe, and I hate abandoning that safety to confront the strong likelihood that my actions truly hurt you, no matter why they happened.

When someone apologises to me, I usually think, “Wow. I admire you so much for being willing to admit your mistake. Of course we can still be friends.” When I apologise to someone else, I expect them to be thinking, “Nope. You blew it. It was probably intentional. I’ll never think of you the same way again.”

In cognitive psychology, that’s considered the result of irrational thinking–the idea that a different standard applies to me than to you, that if I make one mistake it will forever ruin our entire relationship.

know that, but it doesn’t change the fact that I lost sleep debating whether or not to apologise. The fact that I considered taking a different path to class when I saw him on the sidewalk ahead of me. The fact that when I finally decided to catch up and apologise, my shallow breathing left me lightheaded. And while I forced out the words and phrases that barely resembled the coherent apology I’d rehearsed in my mind, my heart raced and my palms sweated. My words tumbled out in a scrambled mess of stops and starts, stutters and stammers, and for a moment I didn’t think he even understood my mangled attempt at making things right.

And then he said something which the adrenaline of the situation immediately erased from my memory but which I think conveyed the idea of, “It’s alright. I’m not mad. We can still be friends.”

…and I immediately wondered, Is he serious? Or is he just saying that? Maybe he’s still mad, but it’s polite to accept an apology, so he’s accepting it. Maybe we can’t still be friends.

And no matter how many times I remind myself that he’s generally quite honest, that he seemed sincere, that my offence wasn’t really big enough to merit his eternal bitterness, I still catch myself at odd moments holding my breath over the entire situation. I feel my stomach knotting or realise my hands are clenched, and I tell myself to calm down, to trust him, to believe that if he says it’s okay, it’s okay.

So it turns out apologising isn’t the only thing I’m afraid of.

It turns out being forgiven is pretty scary, too.

bench

Why I Shouldn’t Study Lifespan Psychology

You guys remember that first blog post, way back when summer sunshine still reigned and the trees had no premonition of the impending winter? That first blog post in which I promised to try something scary every week?

Dandilions
Like this. This is how the world looked back when I said that.

It turns out that scary things are…well…scary. They’re also not fascinating. The truth is that fear isn’t a novel plot. It’s not a lot of specific fears which I vanquish as I approach an exciting climax–a big fight where I, the main character, vanquish fear against all odds and send the denizens of terror fleeing before my epic main-character-ness before I go home to tea and scones and rejoicing. The truth is that life doesn’t get a tidy “happily ever after” tacked onto the end every time I do something right.

But that doesn’t mean I’m not doing something right.

I go to a lifespan psychology class twice a week. Last night I read two chapters of the textbook and slowly came to the realisation that probably I should not have taken the class. Because the book methodically goes through every stage of life and explains everything that could possibly go wrong, all the decisions and personality traits that signal horrible endings in the future, and common causes of death. To say the least, it’s depressing.

Also a little terrifying. I go through it thinking, “Oh no! I do that–I’ll never get a stable job!” and “Oh no! That’s my personality–I’ll never form deep relationships!” and “Oh no! I don’t exercise every morning–I’m going to die of heart failure at 45!”

Train
It’s like this–a fast track to the future–except that instead of the light at the end of the tunnel, it’s a black hole.

Actually, to be completely honest, it makes it hard to get out of bed every morning. It simultaneously sets an impossible standard for a “good” life and gives a hundred reasons why I will never reach that standard. And it’s freezing outside. It’s becoming Antarctica, and I hate the cold–so why bother getting up if I’m doomed to failure anyway? I’ve taken to keeping my email closed so that I can’t see all the things I should be doing. I try not to think about the future, because my psych book has already told me there’s consistent disappointment waiting for me. I’m stressed now, and my textbook assures me that I’ll probably be stressed for the rest of my life. Stress will result in horrible mental, behavioural, and physical disorders. By middle age, I’ll be dying alone and miserable, probably homeless, on some street corner. Or maybe under a bridge.

Given my luck, it will probably be winter, and I’ll probably be living in Greenland, Siberia, or Alaska.

So why bother doing anything when just staying alive is terrifying? I guess the only answer is that even if my life has to read like A Series of Unfortunate Events, I have to live up to my status as the main character (which I’m not entirely convinced is the case, but for now we’ll go with it) and I have to keep fighting.

By which I mean that… I’m more frightened of failing my classes than I am of potentially dying on a street corner. Because my classes are immediate. The street corner…that’s pretty far off in the future.

So this week, I got out of bed. Every morning. I also did my homework, walked through snow, and went to work.

I’m feeling brave.

Standing

Thoughts Post-Apoca…er…Exam

Imagine a middle-school classroom.

I’ll help you. It’s chilly, and the smell of whiteboard markers mixes with Axe and the pungent hot Cheetos someone’s hiding under the desk. Beneath the buzzing fluorescent lights, students shuffle pages, feet, and the unidentifiable contents of a backpack’s deepest pocket. The teacher’s voice cuts like a judge’s at a sentencing: “Clear your desks for the test!”

Groans echo around the room. I groan with them. I’m twelve, and I want to fit in. But I inwardly rejoice, because I love exams.

Proof that middle-school Elizabeth was really nerdy. Not that much besides my hairstyle and taste in jumpers has changed…

No, you didn’t misread that. Meet pre-university Elizabeth: the awkward bookworm who can’t play sports but never misses a quiz question. Other students hear “exam” and think hard questions, bad grades, and stress. Middle-school Elizabeth thinks plenty of time to read a novel while the rest of the students sweat over the questions.

“Test day” meant “free day.”

Fast forward. Hear that familiar, squeaky VHS-tape sound from your childhood…

Now imagine a college classroom: students with iPhones, professor with a full-to-bursting briefcase. No need for a “clear your desks” announcement; the students are all too aware of the impending disaster. They frantically review notes and hold whispered, last-minute conferences about uncertain concepts.

There, slouched in the back row, sipping coffee, you see university student Elizabeth. Her stomach knots with fear as much as any of her classmates’. In the past two years, she’s received her first bad grades. Exams now terrify her.

Funny how things aren’t scary until they’re relevant.

If exams were all this photogenic, I would take more of them...
If exams were all this photogenic, I would take more of them…

This week, after receiving uncomfortable grades on several exams, I’ve coped by reorganising my priorities. Although I apparently haven’t learned the material my professors hoped I would, I’ve learned a few other things:

…that I don’t disappoint my professor by missing questions. Professors don’t expect me to know all the answers–shocking, I know. They know I’m human, fallible, and sometimes confused. They care that I put in effort, pay attention, and consider new ideas. But bad exam grades don’t ruin their opinion of me.

…that worthwhile things require effortStuff was easy in middle school and high school. I never studied and rarely had homework; I finished it all in class. But life doesn’t have a “get out of homework free” card, and eventually, I have to work for something. I have to dedicate time and effort and recognise that I might still fail. And then I have to recognise …

…that time and effort are not wasted, no matter the outcome. If I won’t be successful, why waste the time trying? I think. Because I get a little further every time. Because I learn dedication and hard work even when I can’t see immediate results. Because time spent on worthwhile subjects is worthwhile time even if I fail the test.

Most importantly, I’ve learned that one bad exam grade does not define my ability. No matter how much I have–or haven’t–studied, no matter how I feel about the material, no matter my grade compared to everyone else’s… an exam grade doesn’t define me, my knowledge, or my potential.

And that’s pretty freeing. Life is worth the effort, but the process is worth more than the final exam. I mean, how many questions do you remember from your last exam? I’ll answer for myself: none. But I do remember the discussions we had in class. I remember the thoughts we explored, the new perspectives, and the inspiration to think deeper and more critically.

And that inspiration, that fresh breeze of ideas calling me to explore the new, uncomfortable, and exciting– that’s what matters.book