I’ve been doing my best to remember that simple Zen proverb, really since I finished Peace Corps service last May, but especially as control over my plan to start the next stage of my life in DC has been wrested from me. I am supposed to start work with the Foreign Agricultural Service as an International Program Specialist in the Post-Conflict and Disaster Relief Division – yes, it’s a mouthful. But now that start down is controlled by the shutdown.
I interviewed at the beginning of November for the position. They promptly asked for references and gave me an offer, start date TBD. When I agreed, in the middle of December, to a January start date, I immediately began following up on housing ads. Somehow, I quickly found a great place, centrally located downtown, in my budget, with some super chill housemates. The plan was to begin moving in and paying rent January 1st, then I’d have a few weeks before starting work – PERFECT.
But now I’m back in limbo. The FAS (Foreign Agricultural Service) is a part of the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), so all FAS employees are furloughed, and I am stuck as long as this lasts with no backpay accumulating, wait, wait, waiting with all the other 800,000 estimated to be impacted.
And the impact is really quite scary. Since officially moving in last week, I’ve joined Facebook LinkedIn groups for furloughed govt workers. Upon creation, the numbers grew from hundreds to thousands overnight. People are expressing frustrations, encouraging one another to stay positive and hopeful, and sharing resources and information – that’s anything from lists of banks offering special loans or car companies and cell companies offering delayed payments, to locations that have pop up food banks or restaurants giving free meals; from people sharing mental health resources and free exercise classes to work out their stress, to suggestions about filing unemployment or names of temp agencies and other companies that may be hiring for temporary positions.
One full month of a shutdown: that’s generally the amount of time between payments for pretty much all things – rent/mortgage, cell services, loans, cars, credit cards… And some didn’t even get their pay from December – that’s a month and a half to two full months without income. As this continues, I’m lucky because I’m just one person. Those who have families to support/kids to feed are reeeeeally feeling that lack of a paycheck.
But seeing the support that these social media groups provide is pretty outstanding, and knowing how much is going on to support those impacted by the shutdown, especially the number of pop up food banks, returns to me some of my faith in humanity.
I try to remember, especially as I see all the posts in these groups, that staying positive and optimistic is a choice.
“Today, you can decide to walk in freedom. You can choose to walk differently. You can walk as a free person, enjoying every step.”- Thich Nhat Hanh
And while I feel a lack of control as the number of days of the shutdown keeps increasing with no real end in sight, in the end I am in control of my mood, of whether or not I help myself, and of how I use this time, of how productive I am. Acceptance is key, without it you can’t really grow from any situation, or move on to help yourself.
“The resistance to the unpleasant situation is the root of suffering.”- Ram Dass
In the vein of staying positive, let me now reflect upon all the good experiences I’ve had since I last posted in August – it’s been 5 months. Here are the highlights:
1) Worked for the YMCA assisting at an afterschool program for grades K-5.
I loved this job, and it was perfect for my transition following the Peace Corps. It got me out of the house each day, kept me occupied and interacting with other people, and the kids helped me appreciate the day to day, minute to minute, which was so necessary and endlessly refreshing.
After returning to American culture, I felt pressed to run at the pace deemed acceptable here in the States – an exhausting change. But working with the kids allowed me to take a step back, to truly see and appreciate solely the simple things right in front of me, and to tune out the clock, to forget time. Work became a form of meditation, an exercise in mindfulness, without my fully realizing it at first. And I am so grateful to have learned again, this time with children as my role models, how to focus, how to live in the moment, and how to appreciate the little things as they reveal themselves every minute of every day.
“This is the real secret of life – to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.” – Alan Watts
2) Took a 2-week road trip to visit friends and fun places – and I also have this trip to thank for my position with the FAS.
I started out driving down to DC to stay with one of my Peace Corps besties as I attended a career conference and fair for Returned Volunteers. It was a great week of workshops and of seeing old friends that culminated in a successful career fair. This is where I applied to the position that I will start with the Foreign Agricultural Service once the shutdown ends.
Next up was Asheville, NC to stay with a close friend who I worked with in Alaska, and to meet up with two childhood friends. We explored town a bit, experienced the good food, drink, and music, camped in the back yard, and went for a fabulous hike in the rain.
Then I drove to Shenandoah for some solo hiking and camping. It was a great retreat with really lovely weather.
Next, I continued on to Bethlehem and then Philly, PA, to visit first a Peace Corps friend, and then a couple of college friends. More good food and drinks and peaceful walks, and also some fantastic time with quirky pets.
My final stop was Lake Massawepie in the Adirondacks – where I spent a semester in 2010. I enjoyed a camping spot right on the water that I know so well, and had a lovely bon fire into the night. The following day, I hiked up Ampersand, reaching the peak and taking in the spectacular views just before the rains came. Then I enjoyed the final leg of my drive back to Rochester.
It was an excellent time of reflection. Solo road trips with friends along the way – something I will repeat in the future. Looking back, I am so so glad that I made time for this trip. It helped me to remember who I am in the American context – something Returned Peace Corps Volunteers can forget as we try to readapt to a very different way of life that encompasses very different expectations and norms.
3) Entered into the Rochester ultimate frisbee and rock climbing communities.
Knowing that I like to be physically active, I joined two fall draft leagues, one for ultimate frisbee with a game every Sunday morning, and the other for rock climbing with a visit to the gym every Tuesday night. Not only did I meet some fun people, I also joined two new communities in Rochester. Following the leagues, I continued to play pick-up ultimate every Sunday, even in the snow, and returned to the rock climbing gym each week with more and more friends. I’m super excited to find these communities here in DC too, and already have a climbing adventure with two Peace Corps friends lined up for this week.
4) Visited my baby niece, brother, and sister-in-law out in Portland, OR.
My niece, Cadence, is absolutely adorable, and it was such a treat to take a long weekend to visit her and my brother and sister-in-law. Here are lots of pictures…
5) Experienced the holiday season back in Rochester with family.
Cadence, David, and Sammy also came back to Rochester for the holidays, so there was more time spent with the little one as a family.
Other highlights, in no specific order: fall foliage and crisp hikes, kittens kittens kittens, and Barney, bon fires, pumpkins and apples, my birthday at home, playing in the snow, riding a bike on paved surfaces, driving a car (also on paved surfaces), reliably good red wine, central AC and heating, live music and coffee shops, tattoos, remembering how to dress as an American (kind of), movie/game nights, ice skating, only falling once, etc. etc. etc.…
“I have lived with several Zen masters — all of them cats.”- Eckhart Tolle
And now here I am in DC. I already know quite a few people who live here – especially fellow Returned Peace Corps Volunteers. Plus, I have some great housemates who love game nights and exploring the city. I’ve been doing a bit of that myself as well – down by the USDA building.
There is plenty to be angry about at the moment. There’s a sense of betrayal, injustice, and of being wronged. And there’s that feeling of having the ground disappear from beneath you. But that’s nothing entirely new… Every day there is injustice in the world and things to be angry about. Just as it has always been: Obstacles don’t block the path. They are the path. (Zen Proverb) That is something to be accepted so that we can grow from the challenges of those obstacles and continue on with our lives. What happens too often, however: Man stands in his own shadow and wonders why it’s dark. (Another Zen Proverb)
It’s a choice.
“If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present.” – Lao Tzu
No snowflake ever falls in the wrong place. Some may feel snowed-in, but I’m gonna strap on my snowshoes and see how beautiful all the trees look in their new dressings of white. (That’s purely metaphorical by the way – DC got none of the amazing snow piling up in Rochester…)
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”- Rumi