Natalie Garro, 129 TESS
For most of my life, I have based my identity around the things I do. Using my actions as the foundation for my self-definition has allowed me to build a complex idea of who I am as a person – or at least there was a time it all seemed very complex. I was – and am – an individual with a variety of interests, and probably a bit less caution than your average bear. I have been Natalie the gymnast, Natalie the skier, Natalie the rock climber, Natalie the choir nerd. I have been a yogi, a skater, and a philosopher. I have been an English major, and I have been a canyoneer. I have been an entrepreneur, a wine consultant, a traveler, and a poet.
And, for the entirety of my adulthood, being all of these things gave me a sense of purpose. I had filled my life with hobbies and work that gave me pride, so when I described myself, I bounced down a list of activities that made me seem interesting. I suppose, of course, that all of these things are interesting – and fulfilling… for a time.
About a year into my Peace Corps service, I had a serious crisis of identity. From the moment I stepped onto the plane – taking one last breath of the frigid winter air the morning after a blizzard in Denver, Colorado (nearly 2 years ago) – I opted to leave all of these crucial pieces of myself behind.
In that moment, I assumed a new identity: I was now an Education Volunteer in the United States Peace Corps. I chose this role for a variety of reasons, many of which are – admittedly – selfish. I love traveling, but – more than that – I love learning; and I love learning about other places, other people, other cultures, and other ways of life. I want to help – a general statement, to be sure, but a sincere one – I hope for work that creates space for me to empower those around me. I want to learn – which, for me, includes both the experience and cultural education I’ve received by living and working in a very different part of the world, as well as the university grants available to Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (or volunteers who successfully complete the full 27 months of service). The Peace Corps offered all of these things, and I accepted them with a hunger I hadn’t yet recognized through the clutter of distractions I had eagerly consumed.
But as the days, then weeks, then months ticked by, I became increasingly aware of the chasm growing steadily more persistent in the pit of my stomach. I’m not sure when I first realized the facade of my own persona was dying, nor do I remember the first time I thought of that person in the past tense.
I had shrugged off the various labels I had embodied over the years in order to assume the identity of a Peace Corps Volunteer, and I was slowly realizing, the whole concept was abstract at best. So I am a Peace Corps Volunteer – most people here have no idea what that means… and neither did I.
Here, in my community, I had no use for canyons or stories of mountain treks. I couldn’t translate my poems to convey the deepest, loneliest parts of myself to the people around me. My role as a volunteer English teacher requires very little explanation. And so, at the end of the day, who was I, really?
The protective layers I’d built up around myself – pretty decorations to distract from the rather beaten-down person still recovering below – were wilting, like so many petals in the sun, and I was becoming a naked green stem, with nothing left to offer the world but my own existence.
Coming to terms with this new understanding of myself has been a very slow process. I have met it with resistance, frustration, fear, and tears. I have also met it, looked it in the eye – this strange reflection in the mirror – shaken its hand, and sat down with it.
I have said it before, but the beauty of the breakdown is the potential to begin again. At this moment, I’m not sure how I’m supposed to define myself. I’m not sure I need to. And the funny thing is, no one here has asked me to. I exist, and this has always been enough for everyone around me.
I feel freed from the need to justify my own existence, and this is becoming a foundational piece of who I’m going to be someday. For so long, I was trying to earn the right to be alive. I was not given the choice to come into this world, but I have continually chosen to stay here. The low days have come – days I’ve wondered if it’s worth it to keep going, if there’s a point to the endlessly fluctuating experience of living – and on those days, it’s never the books or the yoga or the mountains or the wine that appear in my mind’s eye: every year there are new faces – countless faces – young faces and old faces, familiar faces and faces still fading from my memory like frost on a warming window pane; and, since I’ve moved here, so many of these faces have loved me, not knowing a single thing about my life in the United States, despite never hearing a single line of my poetry, even though they have no idea I used to climb stupidly large rocks.
They have loved me on the days I have cheerfully bobbed about the town, shouting greetings from the seat of my rusty bicycle. They have loved me on the days I haven’t left my house, and they have never asked me why. And I think this simple acceptance has taught me more about loving myself than any of the books I’ve read, any of the teachings in my yoga classes.
This brings me more peace than the mountains or the desert: this idea that I do not have to earn the right to be here, to be loved – it is enough to show up and allow myself to exist each day in whatever form I exist in.
To be is enough. To be me is enough, even if I’m still not quite sure who that person is. She is enough. I am enough.
“I am. I am. I am.”
Read Natalie’s previous articles Tamada, Rain Bugs, Grit, Laundry, On the Funeral of King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand, and Gulaap: A Lengthy Reflection on my First 4 Months as a Peace Corps Volunteer.