A large part of me wants to bring all of this full-circle, bring closure to my blog in the next short 5 weeks, and to in some manner actually explain to all of you what the heck is going on in this brain of mine.
The problem is, it's not tidy. It's a mess. Peace Corps is messy, life is messy, and cleaning it up and writing it succinctly is a task that I want to take on but feels almost impossible. Life does not always have closure, so I can't expect Peace Corps to be any different.
So let me just start with this quote:
"As to the kindness you mention, I wish I could have been of more service to you then I have been, but if I had, the only thanks I should desire are that you would always be ready to serve any other person that may need your assistance, and so let good offices go around, for humankind are all a family. As for my own part, when I am employed in serving others I do not look upon myself as conferring favors but paying debts."
And do I have a lot of debts to pay...
When I was in my first months of service and starting my new job of working with Peruvian youth, I couldn't stop comparing my own adolescence to those of the kids I was working with. I immediately became hyper-aware of all of the opportunities I'd been given and lessons I'd learned from adults in my life. I wanted to write every single one and thank them for the lessons they'd taught me (note to self: you should probably still do that). I couldn't (and still can't) help but feel overly privileged.
If you knew the town I grew up in, unless you spoke in terms of natural beauty, you probably wouldn't immediately call it a community of the overly privileged. A lot of people thought the community I grew up in was gravely lacking. I mean, a town of 900 people isolated in the mountains of central Idaho, surrounded by wilderness, two-and-half hours from the closest "city" doesn't always have access to all of the resources available. As one of my co-workers once stated, my hometown of Challis, Idaho has "everything you need and nothing you want." It is a rural ranching community filled with cowboys and hardworking people-- and I am pretty sure more cows than people. For my entire childhood there were no street names, you simply gave people directions via landmarks. There's no movie theater. No stop lights. The first and only chain was a Subway in a local grocery store, and that happened in the last 5 years. I couldn't even get cell-phone service at my parent's house until 2009. When I got into high school and started making friends from larger towns and cities they would make fun of me asking if we had indoor plumbing or a TV.
But it is a close community where everyone knows your name. You couldn't get away with playing hookie because whoever saw you would surely call your mom or the school. Something as simple as a high school basketball game will bring many people out of their homes on dark winter nights even with ice on the roads. The high school maybe didn't have the fanciest technology or a wide variety of clubs and groups, but I was involved in everything from sports to yearbook club. I will still say I had some of the best teachers a high school could give. Sadly, it wasn't until I was much older that I could fully appreciate being in a beautiful place with a community of people who invested in my future. To say my town was lacking is to say it didn't have the excess and material wants our society craves.
I don't think I need to go into all of the disparity in Peru and what teenagers here have to deal with, but just to get an idea: getting a full day of basic classes (approx 5 hours) in which capable teachers show up to all of their classes almost never happens on a daily basis. Teenage pregnancy and high school drop-out rates are jaw dropping. Public schools have very little in the means of resources, updated materials, libraries, computers, extra-curricular activities, and a whole slew of things we expect out of our public schools. Then there is gender inequality, issues at home with domestic abuse, illiteracy rates in parents, malnutrition, etc. But while I noticed the stark differences between my teen years and development compared to the kids I was working with, I also saw a lot of similarities. My Peruvian community is not unlike the one I grew up in. It's small and relies mostly on agriculture. Generations after generations live here, and everyone knows everyone. The kids complain about the small town and talk about how much they want to leave and live in the city. In fact, despite all the differences, it feels a lot like home. I started to see bringing kids to Camp ALMA and Camp VALOR like when my 7th grade Science teacher chose to take me to Idaho Youth Summit, a Drug-Free Leadership camp that I could easily credit for shaping much of who I am and consequently my assignment as a Youth Development Volunteer. When I started doing my Health Promoters group and vocational orientation classes I thought of all of the people in my life who talked to me about my future, family planning, goal setting, higher education, etc. The list goes on and on.
I don't need to tell you, teenagers are little shits. And I'm sure at times I was a little shit, too. I do not take it lightly that so many people in their own way passed on their wisdom to me and told me they believed in me. And now I have my kids (all of us volunteers seem to throw that phrase around--"my kids."), my youth group kids, and I see so much potential in them. I am often distraught with the disadvantages they have, with how unfair it is that life decided I be born into privilege and that they are born in a developing country where the cards are stacked against them. I want them to rise above their situation and to be happy and successful, in whatever form "happy" and "successful" is for them. And I suppose the ultimate goal is that someday they will pass it on. And to be perfectly honest, I don't feel like I did enough to ensure that. In fact, I don't know that I did enough, period.
There is this weird thing that happens when you become a Volunteer where all of these people suddenly see you as a saint. You feel anything but saint-like, and yet everyone is so proud of you and your service-- for giving two years of your life to help others. I always hear, "you have made a difference." I will be honest when I say much of my decision on joining Peace Corps was based on the idea of everything I would get out of it. I wanted the life lessons, the experience in another culture, the language. But things changed. Once I realized the great bounty in which I had not only been given gifts my whole life, but everyday of my time in Peru, I couldn't give enough. It could all be better, it could all be more. Like Ben Franklin, "I wish I could've been of more service to you then I have been." I have received more than I could ever give while in Peace Corps. And as for my service, I see now that I was not "conferring favors but paying debts" to all those who have given to me, past and present.
Our society, US society, is all about freeing ourselves of our debts and being independent. Striking out on your own, making a name for yourself, being free of obligations to others. And I would be lying if I didn't say I joined Peace Corps under this notion of being independent, of pushing my own limits and testing myself. And yet what I have learned while I've been here is how important obligation is. How important it is to be indebted to others. Obligation is part of being in a community, part of working with others towards a common goal. Continuing the cycle of giving and receiving is part of communion with others. My Peruvian community has shown me in so many ways, through kindness and friendship and bringing me in, just how important that community bond is.
In "The Toe Bone and the Tooth" Martín Prechtel says, "The idea is to get so entangled in debt that no normal human can possibly remember who owes whom what, and how much. In our business dealings, we keep close tabs on all exchanges, but in sacred dealings we think just like nature, where all is entangled and deliciously confused, dedicated to making the Earth flower in a bigger plan of spirit beyond our minds and understanding."
Life is messy. Life is filled with unknowns. I may never get closure on my Peace Corps service or know the extent in which I have helped others, but I know in my heart how they have helped me, and because of that we are eternally bound.
May the exchanging of gifts continue, and may we all remember our debts.