The Hardest Part (Wrapping Up Year 1)

One evening, when I was seventeen, I wrote a list of life goals on a piece of paper and hanged it to my dad. “These are all the things I want to do before I die,” I told him. The list included things like “hike Mount Everest. Skydive. Finish a triathalon.” Now that I’m a bit older and know a lot more about myself, it’s clear to me that certain things I will never do. Jumping out of an airplane is definitely one of them. And if that triathalon includes any amount of mountain biking, you can count me out. I would still like to hike Everest one day…but maybe only to Base Camp.

Peace Corps has been on my list for a while. This is something I have always wanted to do. There is so much romance that I found in the idea of living in a small, isolated community in a strange country for so long. I spent a year preparing to go, going to great lengths to convince DC that I was physically and mentally fit for service. In the end, I went, and ended up in a tiny, isolated rural village in Madagascar. My job description was simple enough: teach English. Teach other teachers English. Encourage English learning in the community.

Significant hurdles, however, have recently made it difficult for me to do my “job”– my formal, on paper job. Me being me, I’ve been left feeling, for lack of an easier term, useless.

Some of these obstacles here include big political events, like a national teachers’ strike (for higher pay), and some have included meetings and other events that render school cancelled. Now that summer vacation is officially here, (more of less, since we moved from a long school strike into summer vacation without any idea of when exams will happen or if they will happen) I find myself with even more time to simply….exist.

So why is that the hardest part?

In the interest of self-reflection and not beating myself up, it’s worth me acknowledging that I do actually feel very happy with my accomplishments over Year 1. Like, really, really happy. I actually did a lot of what I set out to do: paint a world map, work at a GLOW camp, play music, learn more of my dialect, read books with my students, cook Gasy food, love Gasy people, eat a lot of rice (that wasn’t a goal, but it’s definitely an accomplishment), read more books by myself, have “me time” in my house, get back on my bicycle after my accident. I did all those things. Me. I did them. Not alone, obviously, but I was there. I have this awful tendency to erase myself from my life story, but right now, I’m saying, actually, yes, I did that.

But now what? My dad tells me that “we tend to overestimate what we can do in a day, but underestimate what we can do in a year.” I would add that I also tend to overestimate what I can accomplish alone, and grossly underestimate what I can do with others. I think these lessons are essential, and I’m so glad I’m learning them.

And so, I’m closing out year one on a high note. I’m choosing to do that. I’m choosing to feel happy and satisfied and focus on my accomplishments and see the faces of those I love the most at site and around the country. These are all things–relationships, experiences, events, memories, and insight, that I didn’t have a year ago.

That’s good enough for me right now.

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On Coexistence and Feeling Pain

A few days ago I woke up to the familiar sound of a dog barking–a low, deep, rapid barking that sounded exactly like my dog Lucky’s bark back home.

With my eyes still closed, lying under my mosquito net, I was transported. I heard the sound of my dog’s barks, then felt the soft cotton sheet of my twin bed in the guest room where I slept for four months before service. I heard the low growling of the coffee maker coming from the kitchen and rolled over, deciding to sleep a little longer.

The next moment, the drip drip of the coffee maker gives way to a rooster crowing and men and women shouting to each other: “Vaovao!” they say. “What’s new today!” the ox carts rumble past, squishing over soft mud from last night’s rain.

In a single moment, the symphonic percussions in my ears pull me in two directions: one is a brick home in Memphis, Tennessee; the other is a ravinala hut  in the country-side in rural Madagascar. With my eyes still closed, I feel as if I’m floating, suspending between two coexisting realities, both already melded into my heart.


Two nights ago, my second niece was born: a girl. I took one look at the her picture over Facebook messenger and burst into tears. The pain of not being there a second time for the first year and a half of my new baby niece’s life was unbearable. I did not feel guilt but supreme sadness. And I cried.

In that moment, I wished I could be there to hold her and hug my family and kiss my stepsister and congratulate them on their beautiful, growing family. But I didn’t want to go home. I wanted to transport my family to my little grass hut and have everyone and everything I love for once, finally, be all in one place.

Yet when I closed my eyes and laid down on my soft foam mattress, smelled the clean air around me and felt the quiet of a dark, black neighborhood asleep under the stars, I felt a sense of peace and connection that calmed my fears, my painful longings, my anxiety and my guilt.

Guilt is like wet cement: once you get stuck in it, it becomes harder and harder to get out. I always ask myself why I chose to come here. What was it about “home” that I wanted to leave behind? What was I giving up?

In reality, I don’t think there was anything wrong with my home life. I loved my family and friends. That love never stopped being enough. I just started to need something else in my life. Maybe it has something to do with finding a way to feel safe and secure without the comfortable bubble of a familiar, easy life. I think my experience here is about finding ways to live out my values of human equality and equal opportunity and not be held back my the guilt and anxiety that tells me I need to keep myself “safe” and shouldn’t take risks–risks that could lead to embarrassment and failure, but also amazing results.  Maybe you can be wise and brave at the same time.

I heard a quote from Maya Angelou the other day: “do the best with what you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” As a Peace Corps volunteer barely six months into service, I know about as much as a two year old. But I also know that growing up and learning is possible; I’ve done it before in my country, America. I learned some very hard lessons in some very painful ways. Now I’m doing it in Madagascar. And I’m no longer afraid of the pain. When I wept in my hut for sadness and loneliness, it might have been dramatic through someone else’s eyes, but for me it was what I needed to feel. I’m no longer afraid of feeling, because I think feeling is the most authentic way of being human. There are no distractions here to hide my discomfort, or sadness, or disappointment: no gyms or movie theatres or bars or restaurants or clubs or Netflix or ice cream parlors to numb the pain of another bad day, another disappointment. Most nights, it’s just me and my mosquito net.

This is how it needs to be. And as my little niece grows up in America, taking in all the sights and sounds of this crazy new, noisy world, so will I grow here in Madagascar, slowly crawling and then learning to walk and talk and decipher how to be in my reality. Home will never stop being a part of my reality. But I think now I just need to make more space in my heart for two existences.

The heart, I believe, is like a plant that can just grow and grow if we feed it well.

Here’s to nourishment.

 

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Three of my zandrys (little brothers) posing on sheep-grazing day. They are pictured in my yard.

 

 

 

What I missed: Travelling and Mental Illness

I cried all the way down the Grand Canyon.

Perhaps you could say I was overwhelmed by natural majesty. But what was probably closer to the truth was this: I had recently quit my job teaching English in Southeast Asia, ended a trans-continental relationship and moved back home, only to realize that everyone I knew had moved away in the five years that I had been gone. So I felt utterly alone as I traipsed down the narrow, winding pathways of the Grand Canyon’s South Rim Kaibab Trail. The tears fell in droves. I wiped snot away with my teeshirt sleeve. I had to stop at every corner and take a breath so that I could continue down alive. This wasn’t the Western adventure I had had in mind.

We were halfway into our week-long road trip west. Me, my older sister Emily and my dad Bill packed up Emily’s Honda civic to move her to her new tech job in San Francisco. None of us had been to the Grand Canyon before and I convinced the team to stop en route. I had visions of donkeys dancing in my head and was eager to spend the day sweating and struggling over cliffs and mountain peaks. When we got there, however, we spent a long time deciding on a plan of action, and I got frustrated. Emily’s dog was with us, and dogs are not allowed inside the Canyon (they’re allowed on the scenic trail up top but cannot go down into the crater). Poor guy. But I wasn’t about to let him ruin my Grand Canyon adventure.

In the midst of our planning and discussing, I took off, almost at a run, feeling like I would burst if I sat still a moment longer. I climbed down part of the outer rim and peered over the edge: fur trees, alabaster stone and birds flying high encompassed me. I breathed it all in. In my mind I went back in time to when I hiked Sde Boker by myself, in a similar situation, feeling so frustrated with life that I couldn’t sit still. I wanted to climb higher and higher until the world ended and I fell off the edge. Evidently, that feeling hasn’t gone away.

I’ve had depression all my life and I know how oppressive it feels. I know it gets worse in times of high stress or drastic change. Turns out, moving overseas and teaching ESL is both.

Have you ever met a lactose intolerant person who loves ice cream? That’s how I feel about travelling. It makes me nauseous, but I love it anyway. Yes, planning a trip can be stressful. Your plans don’t always work out as you’d hoped. It might rain. Your hotel might be completely booked, or worse, non-existent (shout out, Vietnam). Or you might end up shouting at your wonderful family because you had unrealistic expectations of how much hiking you could accomplish in half a day with a tiny dog and an aging father (sorry, Papa).

I lost it at the Grand Canyon because I hadn’t seen anything so beautiful since Myanmar–and I missed that time in my life. Suddenly I wanted freedom, to roam, unattached, transient and visible only to those whom I chose to allow in. I’ve been struggling with accepting the modicum of stability I have now at “home” in the United States.

Upon deciding to move home, I remember thinking that this would be a good idea because it would “stabilize” and “normalize” me. But I think I didn’t give myself enough credit. There is nothing abnormal about working overseas. It all depends on who you ask. As I get older, I realize: people are going to think what they’re going to think. Don’t live your life based on other people’s comments, and don’t apologize for being who you are. Travelling is not infantile, criminal or glamorous. It’s just living, a different way.

 

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Adventures at Home: Trying Out Mountain Biking

 Earlier today I was talking with someone about how I love to write about my experiences but that lately I’ve felt like I haven’t had many exciting experiences to write about. His response: “write about the unexciting ones.” 
 
I attempted mountain biking for the first time without any prior experience. I ended up walking most of the trail, dragging my muddy bike along side me, because I had no idea what I was doing, until I came to a deep ditch full of water. This ditch stared at me, and I at it, for what felt like an eternity. All at once a blue blur of a mountain biker zipped through at high speed, leaving me and my self-doubt behind. Suddenly I heard a voice. “Do you need help crossing that ditch?” The blue blur had stopped. I hesitated, looking around nervously, and shook my head. “Uhh, no, I’m alright,” I stammered in response.  Of course I wasn’t, but I didn’t want to tell her that.
 
But she ignored my obvious lie, turned around and biked back down the hill to where I stood, my weight shifting awkwardly to one side. She zipped past me, splashed easily through the ditch, and came up on the other side. She dismounted. “Don’t look at it,” she said to me. “That’s the key. Whatever the obstacle is, whether it’s a pond or a log or whatever, don’t look at it. Look ahead of it. And just keep pedaling.” I nodded, listening intently to her instructions, debating my options as she spoke. I could just turn around and climb back up the hill, I thought to myself, but that might be awkward. This woman had stopped what she was doing to help me. She was the first mountain biker I had met that day to have done so. I had no choice. I had to go through with it.
 
“Go back a little ways so you can gather enough speed,” she instructed. She was being extremely detailed and thorough. She spoke with confidence. I trusted her advice. “Aim for my bike tracks and look up here.” She raised her hand to her shoulder. Ignoring all signs of impending disaster, I mounted my bike and started pedaling, gathering speed as I rushed down the hill on two wheels, my confidence disappearing like the wind. I looked up at her hand and kept pedaling. The wheels moved like air, without any pressure or resistance. The front wheel dipped down–zippp–and whoosh. Suddenly, I was up on the other side. 
 
“Yeaaaaaah!” I heard behind me. I stopped and turned around. My spontaneous coach was cheering me on with a big grin on her face. “Whatever the obstacle is, just look ahead of it and keep pedaling,” she reiterated through her grin. I was speechless. I couldn’t believe that had worked! “Th…thank you!!” I stammered. She gave me a hearty thumbs up. I turned away and just kept pedaling.
 
The “Tour de Wolf” Trail, Shelby Farms, Memphis, Tennessee
 
 
 

Are Christians resigned to wander?

“‘They straightway left their nets and followed Him’ (Mathew 4:20). The Apostles did not grudge leaving their nets for the Lord’s sake, although they were perhaps their only property…we, likewise, for the Lord’s sake, ought to leave everything that hinders our following Him…all the many and various nets in which the enemy entangles us in life.'”
St. John of Kronstadt

Are Christians bound to wander?

I heard this a lot growing up. “Christians are just…different. Being a Christian means you are different from the world.” I never really liked that feeling. I didn’t want to be different from anyone else at school, awkwardly saying prayers before lunch, skipping half days to go to Church on Great Feasts, not eating pepperoni pizza at a friend’s birthday party because it was a fast day. Perhaps that was too much for me, too many rules for a little wandering soul to understand and pray about.

Even though I fought the Church inside, and I warred with it for many years, I never stopped being different. Orthodox Christianity stopped being how I differentiated myself from others, but other things replaced that “label” or frame of mind: my love of theatre, my being “Mediterranean,” my being from Boston, et cetera, ad infinitum. It never stopped, because I never stopped intentionally separating myself from a group.

Thinking about it now, it actually seems like I looked for any excuse to drive a wedge between myself and others. Maybe it was a defense mechanism. Maybe it was just me having unrealistically high expectations for my life.

But this isn’t what the Church actually teaches us. It teaches us to bind ourselves to Christ, and by so doing, loose ourselves of whatever else is standing in the way–tools of the enemy. But it doesn’t say to demonize those things or those people, because we can only “worry about the log in your own eye.”

Worrying about twigs up North.

Yet when I turn my gaze inward at the giant log in my eye, I feel the urge to run again. Not from God, but from everything around me that is casting me in a fishing net into the sea. I thought somehow that, by coming back to Memphis, by linking myself to one physical space, I would seamlessly melt into the fabric of this city, of Church life, of family and relationships. But that isn’t really happening. And I wonder if this has a little to do with the distinctions between Orthodoxy and other denominations of Christianity. Now please understand I am not a theologist or an apologist or any kind of “ist.” But it just seems to me that in the Orthodox Church there is a constant emphasis on the ephemerality of our current life, almost on a daily basis. The whole Church calendar goes from birth (Nativity) to death (Crucifixion) to eternal life (Resurrection and Ascension) and beyond in the course of one calendar year. And we celebrate those transitions every single year. So every single year, we are born, we die, and we come back into life with the Church feasts, the fasts and songs and celebrations. It’s so beautiful, but at the same time…it’s shaking. Because when you connect the fasts and feasts to the meaning behind them and the constant reminder that “there is a war for our souls” going on, it’s very, very easy to feel afraid and shaken.

I know in my head and a corner of my heart that those things are overcome, but still, life is a war for our soul,  a journey towards Heaven. And yet at the same time the world starts whispering little things about family and assets and job security. Now, those are wonderful blessings, which I pray that I might actually have one day if I live that long. But right now I feel slammed by voices that are telling me that I don’t belong, and I’m listening too much. Because, what am I trying to belong to? Christ, or the world? And does the former require me to stay in one physical space?

I wonder if any of my Orthodox Christian friends, whatever age or phase of life, feel that same shakiness and urge to run, because, in the end, that’s not what life is really about.

Or maybe I really am just that different.

Or, perhaps, we are made exactly as God intended us to be, unique and “quirky” and constantly asking too many questions.

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) Challenge

My new adult-like job has kept my thoroughly busy and happily distracted from the pangs of reverse culture shock I find creeping up at night alone or when attempting (and failing miserably) at small talk with strangers. So I haven’t been blogging consistently like I always intend to, and part of that reason is I think it is more difficult for me to drag myself into exciting situations now that I’m “home” and everything seems “familiar.” I’m becoming lazy and starting to understand the term “binge-watching.” I don’t like those things.

The days are getting shorter, colder, more Northeast USA-like..

I miss the Northeast. And I miss Bangkok. And I miss Europe. And I miss my friends very, very, very much. So I spend a lot of time feeling sad and then starting to feel sorry for myself.

I don’t know what my future holds. I don’t know if I’m ready to call off my travelling or if Memphis is where I need to settle at all. Right now I am enjoying my job, enjoying the crisp fall air and welcoming the sights and smells of Autumn. But I’m a bit anxious about how long that feeling will last. I’m hoping to find deeper attachments inside myself, with God alone.

I started this blog over four years ago, before I had ever been to Israel or even New Jersey. I started it at a time when life felt weightless, bottomless, and oppressively overwhelming all at the same time.

I’m not a good blogger. I don’t use social media all that well, and I suck at online communication. I don’t do a good job of “building my audience,” but I do hope that I can reach whomever stumbles over my words with a dash of humor or, even better, a twinge of understanding. I like writing, like I like travelling and meeting new people, for the connections and the similarities.

That being said, I’m signing up for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). The challenge is to write a novel in one month, from November 1 to November 30. The goal is to reach 50,000 words. I’m not much of a fiction writer, but I learned to my delight that I can still participate as a Nano “Rebel.” My project therefore will be non-fiction, probably some type of memoir or personal narrative about my travels over the past few years.

I hope this will be a fun way to relive some of those adventures and to really curl up into them again. I’ve been feeling sad lately, and empty, and wishing I had attachments. I’m hoping that this adventure, one happening in my own bedroom, will take me places I yearn to go and teach me new things about life and myself and other people. Those are the best adventures after all.

I’m going to use this blog and the NaNo website to track my progress starting November 1. If you’re a writer, or aspiring to be one like I am, I hope you’ll consider joining me on this crazy quest. If you’ve already been doing NaNoWriMo, I need your help! Find me at nanowrimo.org/participants/mmstanek.

There is no competition here, only good spirits and encouragement to put one foot (or finger, in this case) in front of the other and keep on going! I’ll be “prepping” for the next two weeks, and then the big day starts November 1! I hope you’ll join me! Let me know–I would love to hear from you.

Mel

Is Writing Selfish? Or Is It Service?

When trying to live a life of service to God and to others, what room is there for egotism? Where does egotism end and our God-given gifts begin?

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I’ve been state-side for one month now, with little to occupy my time other than my own thoughts and the warm comfort of friends and family. As I sit in my little, cluttered home, replete with dog hair and worn-down magazines, I think and pray a lot, maybe too much, about my own future.

I long to continue my education, which leads most well meaning folks to ask me, “what do you want to do as a career?” My usual response is “I don’t know,” which elicits sighs and confusion, mostly from myself.

The truth is, I think I do know, but I don’t feel like admitting it. I want to write. And read. And study. As a career. That seems like something that’s impossible to exhaust…study. One man can’t ever know everything so how much more can we use this life to learn? I think now of one of my favorite little memoirs, Twenty Years A Growin,’ where the narrator gleans this advice to me:

“What good are you unless you study and travel the world while you are in it?”

I take these words to heart and often feel that there’s so much to see and do and learn that I couldn’t ever possibly choose just one path and stick to it. But maybe this is just naivete.

As I contemplate the possible paths before me, I try to see into the future and imagine what would be required of me in a certain setting. How much of myself would I be required to give? How much of myself would I have to die to? In the Christian context, walking with Christ means dying to yourself, taking up your cross (your burdens–see Pilgrim’s Progress) and following Christ.

But how much of me is what I need to die to, and how much of me is given by God to fulfill?

If God gave me a talent for writing or speaking (not saying He did, but I’m certainly no accountant), then shouldn’t I use it for Him? But writing is a very personal activity, and these days I feel like I’m spending too much time alone, in my own head, instead of being present with others.

How much of me needs to die to be filled up instead with Christ?

It’s easy to discern external sins: avarice, greed, addiction, egotism, things that we all struggle with. Sometimes our failings manifest themselves externally in our relationships with others, our addictions to material things, or something else. But sometimes they sink deep inside our skin, and we don’t realize they are there until we try to break ourselves free and instead feel chained to our own sloth, our own internal egotism that sits quietly beneath our breath.

Is this my cross?

If it is, how can I follow Jesus on a path that would confront me with more of the same…the long, solitary afternoons, alone with my books and my thoughts? Our thoughts can sometimes betray us.

Maybe I’m giving myself too much credit. I’m not a hermit…not yet, anyway, and I do love the great outdoors. It’s just that sometimes I love my pajamas more.

Is writing an inherently selfish endeavor? A good writer writes with an audience in mind, with a story to tell, with an argument to posit. Sometimes I just write because I can’t sit still unless I do. Oh, the novelty.

I wonder what it would be like to follow a path of academia, of writing and thinking and listening and learning and trying to convince others I’m right when I secretly know I’m not. Or what if I know I am? Maybe that’s even worse. Or maybe academia, like any other path, is not about being right or wrong but about growing and discovering and being present with others as you walk the road together. Is that naivete again?

What do you think, sage bloggers or writers? How do you reconcile your time in your head with your time serving others? Is writing selfish, or is it a form of service?