Articles

Learning to Love Again: A Peace Corps Story

“…I spent the next three years in a POW camp, forced to subsist on a thin stew of fish, vegetables, prawns, coconut milk, and four kinds of rice. I came close to madness trying to find it here in the States, but they just can’t get the spices right!”

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Eric Mills, 130 TESS

The sun has not yet cleared the horizon but something tells me it will be here soon. I have been awake for hours and in fact, haven’t slept at all. Could it be that I had just uncovered a previously unknown teaching technique, the likes of which the world has never seen? Could it be that I was busy adding the finishing touches to my second novel, “Are you there God? It’s me… Jesus”, or perhaps I was working through a new dissertation on what I call the “Conscious State of Subconscious-consciousness”, a name that I came up with all by myself. But lo, it was none of these things and, if it truth be told, all previous statements are total fabrications and brazen lies. It was, and I hope you don’t mind if I toot my own horn here, balls on dogs.

I find them very refreshing. Big ones, small ones, some as big as your head. You just don’t see them in America anymore. What with all that spading, neutering, and selective breeding. I was taking a stroll through the village the other day and there smack dab in the middle of the road was a brown and white dog with some matted fur, and a big ole pair of grapes. He was just lying there scratching at the gruesome twosome, and with a glazed over expression, uttered a grunt of contentment. I thought to myself, “D*mn. That’s what’s up.” Then I realized I was staring. Taking a quick look around to make sure no one was watching me watching the dog, I went on my merry way.

Seriously the dogs here are fascinating, and not just because they still have their Easter basket. You got your uber protective, I’m gonna f*** you up dogs that come screaming up to the gate every time you so much as look in their direction. You got your let me be your bestest friend, I don’t know you but I love you, brah what you doin, I’m up for whatever types. And then there’s your mix of howlers and beggars and sniffers and droolers. You got your daytime gangs and nighttime packs. You got the haggard moms with their chewed up teats dragging on the ground, calmly taking care of a half a dozen children and the hormonal year or so in dogs, who are just dtf yo, humpin everything that moves like there’s no tomorrow. It’s nature in its most genuine state kemosabe, the fire that burns at the center of all things.

But now as I lie here my thoughts turn to another, far more sinister animal. An animal that some may call evolution’s most hideous creation. I speak of course, of the modern day rooster. I live amongst several of these feathered b*stards, and every day they begin to crow at 5:00 am on the dot. And I have to say… out of everything that may or may not have made a noticeable change in who I am, there is one thing that I know for sure. I can sleep through those bloodcurdling dinosaur screeches like nothing. Or better yet, as if I was sharing a bed with Mr. Sandman himself. Not as lovers mind you… but as equals, one man, and one man half sand. One and a third Sandmen. Anyway it’s been a long uphill climb from my first few weeks when I would lie in my bed, red eyed and on the brink of madness, thinking that maybe the Reverend Colonel Sanders (may he rest in peace) had some pretty progressive ideas about human-chicken relations. If I may quote a friend here… “The struggle, the struggle.”

And the struggle as you (I guess I say “you” here to all people, for life sure is hard) know, it has been. Take yesterday for instance.

The day was just getting started, and I was full of good feelings. No, not emotional good feelings, but the rice that I eat every morning. A brand of rice that is loosely translated to good feelings, which if I’m going to be honest, is blatant false advertisement. One time I ate some and spent the night gripping the handles of the toilet like it was a high speed roller coaster, my bowels thrashing like trees in a hurricane, and my host family highly concerned.

This fateful day began with my students gathered around me like a flock of sheep. And I, their beardless Jesus, was preaching the scripture of English. Sitting in the seat next to me was an especially talented girl who had a knack for sentence structure. Lacking the usual shyness of kids her age, she would often come practice English with me in between classes. Today however, she was not paying attention. Or, let me rephrase that. She was not paying attention to me. She was heavily invested in scraping an especially large, and especially green booger from her nose. If the booger had been mine, I would have been very proud.

Now I saw this going on out of the corner of my eye, and curiosity as they say, was indicted for collusion. As I turned to look at her excavating the left nostril, she gave her finger an expert twist and flick. The magnificent booger took flight, passed through a sunbeam, and shining like a diamond (a big green crusty diamond), came to rest directly in my right eyeball. Immediately my finger rushed to the rescue, but in my panic I only succeeded in mushing the sucker in further. I freaked out and ran for the nearest sink but alas, there was no soap. Truly there is nothing more pure and evil than a child’s laughter.

Looking back at the last year of my life, with its dogs, chickens and boogers, I find myself thinking about the word resilience. Now did they make it an annoyingly repetitive mantra of training? Was it spoken about perhaps a threatening amount? An amount that said, look out rubes, you have no idea what you’re in for? Well I say, who cares? The fact is I’ve noticed my resilience only in hindsight. Resilience has not been something that I have sought, gathered and eaten. It has become tangible only in reflection, more a thing that already existed, undeveloped and waiting. I think of it like a seed (please pardon the cliché), a seed that I have carried from my birth. And watered by those forces outside all semblance of control, nourished by all the pain, all the bitterness of what it means to be someone, what it means to be alive, it began to take root.

Everything you have ever done, every mistake made, every hardship traversed, is filtered through your self-awareness and fed to that seed. And so over time, there will come moments of quiet reflection when your life and your world are spinning beneath your feet and you will find, instead of redemption in the face of everything that you are; something even better. The beautiful thing that you yourself have grown. To look at this thing is to realize with confidence and feeling that the world doesn’t hurt as much as it once did. Your resilience has grown to the point where it can be felt and to that end you have become more than what you shoulder.

But heck, I don’t know…enough about resilience, there are plenty more seeds waiting to be fed and grown throughout your life—

and I think it is a such a wonderful unit of time: your life. Some people say that it is short, but I disagree. It is the longest thing that you will ever do. I find that to be a comforting thought.

However,

I do not intend to end on one, so sorry, so sorry. Reality is not made of comforting thoughts, but only a fraction, which is what makes them so special. So instead I will leave you with thoughts, which are constant, and often nameless.

The sun is breaking, and there is silence. I stare at the bare walls of my room, and feel the wind seeping through the holes in the concrete. I think about being an American. I think about growing up in America. I think about how I carry that with me. How we all carry that with us.

I think about Thailand, how it presses against this idea, this experience of self. How this place is lived until used up by people, people, people. Everyday it is changing, and everyday we are in addition to and because of and part of and in spite of; just like everyone else. There is nothing but life and death. It roars among the tangled roadways of Bangkok, it’s rivers of metal and exhaust. It prowls around the half-finished skyscrapers, jutting out of the earth like immense gray flowers, fragmenting the landscape. It pulses in seedy night time streets where a great host of faces are shadowed by oxidized light– pink and red against the dark.

I think about the villages with their homes, about the temples with their monks, about the schools, the adults and the children. I think about my friends and family and fellow volunteers. I see them all interlaced in fog and smoke, and I see myself yelling at them as they retreat into nothingness, “I know who I am!” or, “I’m pretty sure I know what I am!” Then quietly, “Well sh*t, I thought I knew who I was,” and finally, “Who am I supposed to be?” But there is no conversation, no answer.

I think about the student who helped me walk my bike home when I popped a tire. I think about the very same student who decided to toss a kitten off the second story of our school. I think about good and evil, with the crux of humanity always throbbing between these two things. I think about mountains. I think about rain.

But now the sun is clearing the horizon. The dust is scintillating between rays of light coming through the wall. The rooster signals the hour, and I hear voices in the street. It is time to get moving and there is so much to do.

So I get up and go.

“Good Morning Teacher. How are you?”

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