I’m Off!

This is a quick goodbye—after a great whirlwind of a staging event in Philly, I and some 47 other Peace Corps Trainees are off to Rwanda!

I don’t know when I’ll have internet again; it could be a few days, and it could be a few weeks. I’ve been given to understand that the internet at our training site is spotty at best. I’ll be back as soon as possible!

In the meantime, a quick reminder that the “Rwanda Updates” dropdown has a few different pages that may or may not be interesting to you, including how to send me mail. Also a reminder that these pages will not send you email notifications when I update them; you’ll have to actually go there and read them from time to time. 😀

And, as always, thank you for coming along with me on this next adventure!

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Halfway

A. A. Milne wrote a poem called “Halfway Down.” The second verse goes like this:

Halfway up the stairs
Isn’t up
And it isn’t down.
It isn’t in the nursery,
It isn’t in town.
And all sorts of funny thoughts
Run round my head.
It isn’t really
Anywhere!
It’s somewhere else
Instead!

Tonight I find myself on that halfway stair.

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I’m halfway here or there—halfway home or not—halfway staying or going—halfway beginning or ending.

All of my things are packed, either inaccessible in suitcases to be locked in checked baggage, or carefully situated in my carry-on, or safely tucked away in storage bins to await my return. This puts me in a strange position, just for twelve hours or so, of having nothing.

It’s a feeling of rootlessness I know too well and yet am always surprised by—this question of where I live, where I belong. At the moment, it’s easy to pinpoint; I certainly don’t live here anymore, but I certainly don’t live in Rwanda yet.

Sometimes it’s more subtle, not marked by where I’ve settled or not settled but by a quiet awareness inside me. Sometimes it’s the unexpected distaste of filling my office with personal items. Sometimes it’s the reluctance to actually unpack a suitcase, since I’ll probably be packing it again soon. Sometimes it’s a fake smile when I meet a new friend, or a longing glance at a world map on a passing wall.

My halfway stair is clear to see at the moment, dramatically bookended by two very different countries, by an obvious before and after. It’s all too clear that this is the step breaking my life in half—my childhood and my adulthood suddenly splitting away from each other in the scanning of a boarding pass.

But there have been other halfway stairs. Sometimes it feels like my whole life is a halfway stair, frozen between something and something else—I seldom know what. My whole life feels like that moment between a long sigh and a sudden inhale.

Neil Das wrote a “Haiku on Moving—For Friends Newly Moved”:

home’s the skin we live
in, moving its shedding; you
now new and tender

they say you leave your
heart, i say your lungs; it may
take some time to breathe

How to Say Goodbye

I’ve made a lot of goodbyes in my relatively brief lifetime. Long ones, short ones; temporary ones, permanent ones. Some I saw coming for years, and others appeared out of nowhere, bumps in an unexpected turn in the road.

And I’m facing another one.

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I hate goodbyes—the messy emotions, the awkward eye contact, the lingering guilt of being excited to leave while I’m folded in one last hug. I’ve avoided them, skipped out on them, brushed past them. Lately, though, I’ve been trying to do them properly.

But what makes a proper goodbye?

I’ve heard formulas and read advice—mostly checklists of things you ought to do and say and feel, places you should go, people you must see one last time.

I hate seeing an inherently emotional experience laid out like a to-do list. Goodbyes are deeply personal, painfully beautiful moments in which we pass from one world to another. They are, to me at least, too mystical for the mundanity of mnemonic reminders and check boxes.

It’s not about a formula; I think it’s about balance.

See, I’ve tried wallowing in the impending loss, and I’ve tried waltzing away without looking over my shoulder. Neither leads to satisfying transition. So I’m striving for balance, for an intentional halfway between disregarding my present and fearing my future.

I’m preparing to arrive in Kigali while preparing to leave Arizona, nurturing the anticipating and tending the grief simultaneously. I walk a fine line, noticing all the lasts while envisioning all the firsts.

I wonder if I’ll have a new pet as my dog licks my fingers, and at the moment I envision some vague, furry shape in my future, I realise my absence will be an eternity for this solid furry shape in my present.

I buy seeds to plant my favourite herbs and vegetables in my future garden, and I know I will not see the first flowers and fruits of the baby trees growing now in my present garden.

I hope my unknown host family will like me even while I’m exchanging bad puns and sarcastic banter with the family I’ve always known.

A photo by Kalle Kortelainen. unsplash.com/photos/HnWoAM0bMec

Every day, every moment, I am beginning goodbyes.

Goodbye to my books as I stack them in bins for storage. Goodbye to short shorts as I pack for a more conservative culture. Goodbye to soul-baking desert heat as I look forward to a milder climate.

Goodbye to the sunflowers we picked along the highway and planted in the backyard, and goodbye to the overgrown tomato vine that supplies my breakfast so often. Goodbye to morning cuddles when my mother flops on top of me to wake me up, and goodbye to evening scuffles when my brother tries to correct my faulty karate form.

It’s goodbye to more than that, though. It’s goodbye to effortless communication and innate cultural understanding, to time-proved friendships and subconscious patterns enforced by years of interaction. It’s goodbye to knowing how I fit into the social structure.

It’s goodbye to everything familiar.

Every day, every moment, I am beginning to grieve, to see the world through the lens of an upcoming ending.

Every hug, every wave, every “see you later” might be the last. Every flash of light against familiar walls and rooftops is the sun setting on this part of my life. Every drop of rain as the monsoon season finally wrings itself out is time washing away what I know.

Saying goodbye properly, I think, is not a matter of right or wrong, of checking every correct action off a list before you step onto a plane and into your future. Goodbye isn’t a ritual of words and hugs, a clichĂ© of tears and tissues.

Goodbye is a perspective.

It’s noticing the moments passing and embracing them while you can. It’s acknowledging the apprehension and excitement tangled up inside you as you consider your future and knowing they are both valid, natural, healthy. It’s slowing down for the view you may never see again and still speeding up for the one you’ve never seen before.

It’s knowing that the road always curves, that goodbye is inevitable, and that, whether or not you ever loop back to this stretch, the road beyond the bend holds adventures, joys, sorrows—life.

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I Cried

I cried over a bowl once.

I don’t remember what it looked like, really; I was six or seven, and it was some kind of mixing bowl, but it had been my great-grandmother’s. We were packing to move overseas, a process I understood in terms of its end result. My parents were up late, deciding what to pack, what to put in storage, what to get rid of. You don’t realise how much you own until you have to condense a houseful of belongings into a few airport-ready bins.

I remember yellow kitchen light and open cupboards and the chaos of boxes and kitchenware littering the floor, and my mother holding the bowl and deciding to get rid of it.

And I remember crying.

She told me it was silly to cry, because I hadn’t even known the woman, and it was her grandmother, not mine, and her bowl, not mine, and she told me that sometimes you have to get rid of things, even sentimental things, because you can’t keep everything.

She got rid of the bowl.

I don’t know why that mattered so much to me; all her reasons were right. Maybe it was the stress of the transition catching me unawares, or maybe I was an emotional kid awake after my bedtime. Somehow, though, in the moment, it felt right to cry, to mourn without inhibition what I saw as the loss of something beautiful and meaningful.

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I used to cry a lot, actually, but I don’t so much anymore.

I cried for homesickness after every move, but at some point that stopped. Sometime between moving to the desert and moving into a dorm room, homesickness stopped being a poignant ache and started being a fact of life—like a chronic backache, it’s always present, always painful, but no longer debilitating; it’s so constant I hardly remember what life was like before it.

I cried over deaths of people I hardly knew. I cried in the living room over sad movies and in the back of the classroom over sad books that I hid in my lap and read during lectures. I cried over beautiful music and skinned knees and lost toys.

I cried a lot.

I cried unashamedly.

But somewhere along the lines things changed, and I started to hate crying. I began to develop tricks for avoiding tears—biting my cheek, thinking of something funny, dissociating, counting backward from a hundred, anything that would distract my brain long enough to regain control of myself.

My childhood self saw tears as a beautiful thing—a cleansing, a connection, a genuine expression. My beginning-to-grow-up self lost that perspective. Sometime after that bowl, tears became a weakness instead of a strength, a betrayal instead of an admission. They became something to hide, something to deny, something to avoid.

I cried over a rabbit yesterday.

bunny

She died in my hands, and there was nothing I could do, and somehow, through the panic and the grief, I remembered my mother standing in that yellow kitchen telling me that you can’t keep everything even if you love it. I held the tiny convulsing body and I cried, and in the infinity between fluttering heartbeats, I remembered every other animal I cried for.

I remembered the mouse dead in the mousetrap when I was eight, and the baby bird dead in my hands when I was ten. I remembered one puppy kicking and going still when I was nine and one puppy watching through the fence as we drove away when I was eleven. I remembered a pair of baby quail in a cardboard box and an old mare rearing in a new corral.

And as I cried, uninhibited, unashamed, over the loss of something beautiful, I thought, for the first time in a long time, that maybe tears are a cleansing.

I Should Not Have an Education: or, Why I’m Moving to Rwanda

What would you think if I didn’t apply to grad school, I texted my mother, and instead moved to Africa to teach English?

I got her answer almost immediately: Can I call you?

To be fair, she handled the whole situation better than a lot of parents might have, and over the next several hours, I laid out my reasoning behind discarding applications to a handful of top-notch universities and banking on a long-shot application to the Peace Corps.

My main reason: I should not have an education.

Education is an interesting thing, when you sit down to think about it. For centuries, only the wealthy or religious were educated, and the working classes were kept in their place largely by a lack of education. In some times and places, it simply wasn’t available. In others, it was illegal—consider the way white Southerners kept black slaves under control by limiting their education. Today, we consider education a necessity, but millions of children worldwide either can’t go to school or have to drop out before finishing.

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According to UNESCO, 61 million primary school-age children were not enrolled in school in 2010. Of these children, 47% were never expected to enter school, 26% attended school but left, and the remaining 27% are expected to attend school in the future.
(DoSomething.org)

I say that I should not have had an education, and maybe that sounds odd. After all, I’m a white American living above the poverty line. I learned to read and write before kindergarten and maintained high grades from beginning to end of my education, and I never once questioned whether I would go to college (though, as I later learned, my parents did).

But the truth is, I would not have had that education if it were left up to me; I’m only in my position because a lot of people made a lot of sacrifices. I succeeded in high school because my mother devoted time and energy to homeschool six children when the public school system failed us. My parents managed a tight budget to buy me books on my birthdays. I attended a fantastic college mostly on scholarships and work-study, and I studied abroad thanks to generous gifts from family and friends.

“In developing, low-income countries, every additional year of education can increase a person’s future income by an average of 10%.”
(DoSomething.org)

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Don’t get me wrong—I worked hard for my education—but I started from a position of privilege, and it was the sacrifices and gifts of other people that put me there. And suddenly, a year ago, wading through grad school applications, I stopped and asked myself, “Why?”

Why go to grad school? Why spend that much more money—someone else’s money, of course—to spend another two years revelling in a writing-centred world of my own? Why go on to a career, to make money to pay for a flat so I could live in a city with a job where I could make money to pay for a flat to…? That day, staring at the bright pictures of classrooms and successful grad students, I thought, What a waste.

Not that education is a waste of money. I think education is one of the most valuable things we have—the chance to broaden our worlds, learn new skills, open up opportunities. But taking an education I’d been essentially given and using it merely to make myself a lucrative life? It sounded thoroughly selfish.

“53% of the world’s out-of-school children are girls and 2/3 of the illiterate people in the world are women.”
(DoSomething.org)

Literature cracked the world open for me. It gave me a place to hide, new thoughts to think, unexpected people to love. It taught me to understand and communicate with diverse groups of people, to consider every perspective, to grieve for every pain. Practically, communication skills make me more likely to get and keep a good job. Literacy gives me the chance to learn outside a formal educational structure, and writing gives me an effective self-therapy option when anxiety strikes.

And, faced with the option to spend two more years either enjoying my education or sharing it, I couldn’t fathom choosing the former.

This leads me to my official announcement: in September, I fly to Kigali, Rwanda to spend the next two years teaching high school English.

I’m thrilled. I’m terrified. I’d love to answer your questions, and I hope you’ll stick around and let me virtually take you with me on this journey.

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*This is a scary announcement because the Peace Corps gives volunteers no guarantee that they won’t be cut from the programme before arrival. My status as a volunteer could change between now and September, although obviously I don’t anticipate that happening.

Between Bowls

Did you think I was done exploring the struggles and truths of transition times? Are we ever really done with transition? Here’s Amy’s take on moving home after graduating a semester early.


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I don’t like the in-between stages. I’m not sure anyone does. So when I came home after finishing university a semester early, I wasn’t sure what to expect. After sixteen and a half years in school, I had a routine down. In August, prepare for school and start classes. Early June, head home for summer vacation. Late August, repeat. But this year was different. I came home in February, not June, and my friends were all still in that routine, starting a new semester of classes and doing fun activities together while I sat at home trying to figure out a plan for this new stage of life.

After coming home, I took over caring for the family goldfish, Albert. He’s a happy fish, living in a good-sized container. He loves to swim around quickly to show off his gloriously large tail, and his bright orange coloring contrasts beautifully against the royal blue marbles at the bottom of his home. That is, for about a week and a half until his water gets dirty. All too quickly, the water takes on a dingy hue and poor Albert’s scales don’t seem quite as bright and happy. His water begins to evaporate, little by little, leaving a dirty ring around the top of the bowl and leaving Albert with less space to swim. Soon after these changes occur, I do what any good pet owner would. I scoop him into a small red cup and set him nearby on the counter while I scrub and rinse his little home until it’s clean and then fill it with fresh water so that he can swim freely and healthily again.

The only problem is that Albert hates the red cup. His big tail is suddenly a hassle, encumbering his movement for the five minutes that he is in a smaller space. He wants to dart and dive, but the red cup is just big enough for him to move around a little while he waits for his home to be cleaned.

In many ways, I feel like Albert. In this time of transition between college and “real life,” I’m stuck at home. I had a routine, but I’m being thrown into a new one, and it feels confining. Unlike Albert, though, I know better things wait on the other side of this transition. I know the in-between stage is just that—a time in between two good things—and that after this stage, I will be in a much bigger bowl, with plenty of room to dart and dive and try new things and with space to open my talents up wide and grow in new ways.


View More: http://tracifalderphotography.pass.us/taylor-cco-headshotsAmy Gaasrud recently graduated from Taylor University where she studied Professional Writing. She currently works as a freelance proofreader for InterVarsity Press. When she’s not editing or writing, Amy loves baking, reading, and finding pictures of cute animals to send to her friends. To hear more from her, follow her on Twitter (@AmyGaasrud).

The Mess of Transitions

Hello, my darlings! I have a treat for you this week: my dear and talented friend Emily is here to talk about transitions and the books that get her through them. I’m constantly inspired, challenged, and encouraged by her writing, and I hope you will be, too.


I’m always caught off guard by how ungloriously messy transitions are. I want them to be Instagram worthy at every turn, but they never ever are. It makes me think I’m doing something wrong: I didn’t plan well enough, or I’m not really ready to make this move, or I don’t deserve it. If I had and was and did, it would be more glamorous, right? The lighting would be better. I would have woken up with enough time to do my makeup. The corners of my books wouldn’t have gotten bent during the move.

I know it’s not true, but I buy the story every time. It’s the one crowding the shelves of every supermarket, eternally on discount.

I’m starving for richer stories, for brave words about messy times. I need a supplement for the weak, over-processed stuff I’ve been consuming.

 During the long interim of preparing to graduate from college and learning how to be a post-college adult, I happened across two books whose words felt so true and nourishing. Their words still echo in my gut, filling me, moving me, growing me, and fortifying me.

Tables in the Wilderness

I read Tables in the Wilderness during my final semester of college. It tells the story of Preston’s college years and his spiritual questioning and formation during that time. College was a time of spiritual upheaval for me as well. Though Preston and I asked different questions and worked them through in different ways, I could see reflections of myself in the words on the pages of this book. I understood the confusion and the shame and the out-to-sea-ness that come with reformulating one’s spirituality.

As graduation neared, I wasn’t finding any of the neat closure or conclusions I expected to have by the time I left college. Doubt does not care about my collegiate time frame, it turns out. But Preston’s book gave me an example of wading along through murky waters, not gracefully, but faithfully. He demonstrated how messy moving through a wild place is, transitioning from certainty to hazardous possibility.

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Bittersweet

I made my way through Bittersweet the summer after graduation. From the first essay I read in her first book, Cold Tangerines, I have been captivated by Shauna’s candid truth telling. Bittersweet moves through the breadth of experiences a person will encounter in her life: job loss, the deaths of loved ones, moving to a new city, fighting to create meaningful contributions to the world.

A few months ago, I wrote about what this book taught me about making time for creativity. Another valuable lesson I learned from Bittersweet is to always always say something when a friend or acquaintance is grieving the loss of a family member or is just going through a rough season. As Shauna says, it is worse to say nothing in that situation than it is to embarrass yourself by saying the wrong thing. I have found myself calling up this reminder multiple times already in my post-college life.

It carries over to other areas as well, I think. I put so much pressure on myself to say the right thing or act in just the right way in a new situation that I sometimes stop myself from saying or doing anything at all. A big part of life is just showing up, even if you aren’t completely prepared—showing up for your friend who is mourning, showing up for job interviews you don’t feel quite qualified for, showing up in the handyman’s voicemail inbox for the fourth time that week asking that he please come look at the leaky ceiling.

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For nearly nine months now, I’ve been in the transition out of college. It’s messy beyond belief, and I’m glad for the few voices who stand in the mud, unflinching, saying, “Me too.”


Emily is a product of the prairies of Nebraska—equal parts poetry, flowers, and wilderness. She studied professional and creative writing at Taylor University in small town Indiana, and is now learning to balance a part time job, graduate classes, and apartment life in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
She blogs at expressionsofarestlessmind.wordpress.com and tweets at @emsimily.