Truth? I’m Scared.
Truth? I’m scared to death. I am leaving everyone and everything I know to live in a village in Africa without running water and electricity for two years. And at 56 years old, with 30 years of marriage and a comfortable house in suburbia, that’s asking a lot. But with the world in crisis and the future uncertain in so many ways, staying put is no longer a viable option for me, for reasons I don’t fully understand and have learned to not question.
And so I am preparing to leave a metro-Atlanta suburb where my husband and I somehow ended up after we relocated from New York City so many years ago, for the Equator-straddling East African country of Uganda where I’ve accepted a position with the Peace Corps as an Agribusiness Specialist.
I will learn a tribal language that won’t be useful anywhere else in the world but will be necessary for my survival. I will defecate crouched over a pit latrine and kill mango maggots on my clothing and boil water so I don’t get sick (although I’ll get sick — everyone gets sick). I will go to bed scared at night of scorpions and sexual assault. I will worry about my elderly parents, husband, and daughters so, so far away. I will discover what skills I could possibly have to offer to strangers from a culture completely unfamiliar to me, and what I have yet to learn from them about community and resiliency. And perhaps, through experiences I cannot yet imagine, I will ultimately discover exactly what I am made of and what my Maker wants me to do in the limited time I have left on this earth.
Meanwhile, having just received medical clearance from the Peace Corps after two months of nonstop doctors appointment (including a life-and-death test to see if I was really allergic to penicillin, my first colonoscopy, and the required Yellow Fever vaccination), I begin to pack up life as I know it and clear space for what’s ahead.
I grab a saw and chop down my garden so it doesn’t swallow my husband whole while I am gone. I empty closets and clean out the garage and sell my books. I donate clothes and tools and furniture. I face some things and fix some things and forget about trying to change some things. I figure out how to step out of the life I built while somehow remaining committed to those I love.
And as I sit quietly on the driveway at the bottom of the hill in suburbia, where I feel I’ve become increasingly irrelevant professionally and personally, I gaze at the stars above, knowing that in just five months I’ll be looking at the vast night sky of Africa. And then I do what perhaps every aging person has done at one time or another — I mutter these opening lines from a poem by Dylan Thomas:
Do not go gentle into that good night;
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
There is a moment in every season of the reality television show Survivor when each contestant must make a bold decision that will solidify alliances and alter the entire rest of his or her game. Joining the Peace Corps is my bold decision. It is the solidification of my alliance with my husband about our dreams for our shared future beyond this place where it’s easy to get stuck. It is my rave at close of day; my rage against the dying of the light.
When I was faced with the decision about whether or not to reapply to the Peace Corps, allowing them to choose where they needed me most after being rejected from my first choice (Jamaica), my husband said to me, “Aren’t you curious?”
Yes, I am curious.
Let’s see what happens next.
The Rains Down in Africa
“Oh, for God’s sake, now cholera?” I say out loud after I click open the news online while looking out a window at Whole Foods in Midtown Atlanta as I nibble a muffin. Apparently the rains down in Africa, despite perhaps evoking memory of a cute scene in an episode of the show New Girl that features manic-pixie-dreamgirl Zoey Deschanel singing the well-known Toto song of that name, are wreaking havoc not just in Uganda but across the African continent. The cause is attributed to climate change.
Parents are pictured carrying their children on their heads across the raging floodwaters. In addition to multiple drownings and the immediate destruction of numerous villages, an outbreak of cholera is expected. Add that to the current prevalence of malaria, HIV/AIDS, snail fever, and other diseases (not to mention that recent news report about deforestation-affected chimpanzees kidnapping toddlers and eating their kidneys), and honestly, it’s all I can do to keep moving forward on my plans to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uganda.
Right here at home, torrential rains beat down on my organic gardens, which I am in the heart-wrenching process of eliminating after growing them since the terrorist attacks on the United States more than eighteen years ago, a journey that has been so intense that I wrote a book about it named Food for My Daughters. Hairy vetch, a springtime legume that serves as a nitrogen-fixing cover crop (about which I told a funny story in that book), has the audacity to grow right now in our unseasonably-warm winter weather, rubbing sadness in my wounds.
And the night I watch Gorillas in the Mist, a movie from the 1980s about how Dian Fossey talked Dr. Leakey into letting her audit the last remaining mountain gorillas on the border of Rwanda and Uganda, I notice the rains have resulted in a leak in our home that caused damage that must be dealt with immediately, despite Christmas the following week. Words like mitigation and reconstruction pepper the texts between my husband and me, a roofer fixes the rooftop “dead valley,” and the inside of our house gets turned upside down. Insurance claims handlers and adjustors show up. Decisions must be made, and quickly, about things we own and about what our future is going to look like while I’m halfway around the world for 27 months.
During these two weeks of sudden havoc over the decade-ending holidays, where our Christmas tree stands in the kitchen for the first time ever out of necessity and we only make it to four candles on the Hanukkah menorah before we get swept away in the details of our dramas, my 11-year-old Toyota Prius needs $1,000 in repairs, the garage door stops working (particularly annoying in the seemingly-constant rain), and, worst of all, my 91-year-old father-in law ends up in the hospital in Florida in a life-altering condition. Information must be gathered. Yet more decisions, many of them enormous, must be made.
After a cortisol-induced state of slight panic where I splay myself across my mother’s couch and bare my soul, I ride my bike, find my God again, and tell my younger daughter, who has been home from college through most of these challenges and who turns twenty years old in the midst of it, that I’m just going to keep doing the next right thing. She plays a song about that exact strategy from the new movie, Frozen 2, and tells me how one of the main characters, Anna, sings this in a cave after she believes her sister, Elsa, and her best friend, Olaf (who happens to be a snowman), are dead.
This reminds me of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, a story I loved in Philosophy 101 in college. To the best of my memory, it’s about a prisoner in a cave who thinks he sees reality but realizes that it’s just a shadow of the truth. He breaks his chains and then discovers what he sees next is an un-illuminated version of the truth. Finally, he makes it up the stairs and into the light of day and sees a new truth. While riding my bike (as is my habit), I try to break my chains, ascend the metaphorical stairs, and see the light of day. Perhaps I can alter my understanding of reality. Perhaps, as they say, I am not a human being having a spiritual experience but a spiritual being having a human experience. Perhaps there are blessings in all this, I contemplate. Perhaps God works in messy ways to deliver us to where we need to be. Perhaps the steady stream of helpful, kind strangers crossing our threshold with such frequency lately are, in fact, angels.
Every year on Christmas Day, we watch the movie The Family Man. It’s about a high-powered arbitrage trader in New York City who crosses paths with a man committing a crime in a bodega who turns out to be an angel who gives him a glimpse of an alternate reality — the one he would have experienced had he not left his girlfriend behind at the airport years earlier. This movie is why I talk to strangers (and have created a series of street portraits titled Today’s Nice Stranger). It’s why I think twice about every single person I meet, and their potential spiritual meaning in my life, and mine in theirs. It’s why I started thinking that if any person could be “the angel,” then every person could be. Lines from the movie serve as a shorthand in our family to a greater good, and it unites us when we face challenges.
This year’s viewing of The Family Man is no different, although the scenes in the airport when they leave each other hit me harder this year. When it is time to choose a gift for my husband for our 30th wedding anniversary right after the calendar turns to 2020, I choose to name a star for him, as the main character in The Family Man did for his wife one anniversary. We will both see this star in the sky above, 8,000 miles apart. He gifts me with a beautiful drop pearl necklace, as not only is the 30th anniversary traditionally the “pearl” one but Winston Churchill famously referred to Uganda as the Pearl of Africa.
There are currently about 7,000 Americans serving as Peace Corps Volunteers in over 60 countries around the world. About four percent of them are over the age of 50, and about one percent of them are married, mostly to other Peace Corps Volunteers serving with them at the same time. We, as a couple, are an anomaly. We don’t know any other couple like us, and we don’t really know how we are supposed to do this. We are in unchartered, gushing waters that are raining down around us. So we name a star and gift a pearl, and we muddle forward, together, through the storms.
How to Eat an Elephant
With my husband down in Florida at the hospital with his father for close to two weeks, I start at six o’clock each morning and tackle a different room, a different closet, a different set of drawers in the place that we’ve called home these past twenty four years. I had told my husband that old saying, “You know how to eat an elephant, right? One bite at a time!” and so I keep taking bites out of my overwhelming to-do list. I need to pack up my life “as if” we’re moving so we’re as nimble as possible for my return, plus clear parts of the house for the needed repairs, so that means everything is on the chopping block — even my elephant, Freddy, from when I was a child. I text photos of particularly sentimental things to my daughters and husband and ask them to vote thumbs up or down (although I decide on my own to keep Freddy).
I’m on a first-name basis with the guys at Goodwill now, and every load I drop off feels emotionally heavy but somehow good. I discover that listening to Bruce Springsteen (something I’ve really never done before) helps, as does watching that Netflix show Grace and Frankie (which I hadn’t done before either). So many powerful anthems. So much starting over, moving on.
All in all, it seems to be going well. I especially love gifting things, such as my old unicycle which I give to a man who wants to teach his eight-year-old daughter who just survived cancer how to ride, and my spinning composters which will go next to a garden nearby that grows food 100% for those in need. I love freeing energies. And I love the increasingly uncluttered, open feel of my walls and rooms and air. I’m even seeming to accomplish my goal of only having five boxes of personal belongings (including clothes, photos, family mementos, art supplies, work samples, and yes, even that sharp letter opener that may have saved my life in the Sir Carl story in the first chapter of my book, Traveling at the Speed of Bike).
There is only one thing, in all honesty, that has moved me to tears, and that’s the dining room table. I stood next to it and laid my head upon it and sobbed. Parting with it will be hard, yet the Metro Atlanta Furniture Bank is already scheduled to pick it up for donation. My mother had bought it for us at a second-hand shop when we bought this house, so I know it carries another family’s story, too. It has two leaves that enlarge it, so it has expanded and contracted with us as it hosted all our Thanksgiving (and other) dinners, including this last one where we stretched it out and put it on an angle just so we’d all have a decadence of room. As usual, we lingered for hours. It was, and has always been, a sacred space.
Struggling to get my bike rides in each day between this drop-off and that, I’ve been stopping at the park in passing, with my bike in my car, and knocking out a four-mile loop. Almost every day, I’ve run into someone I know there, which is not particularly normal. Yesterday it was my friend Susan, who was adding books to a Little Free Library. She is the wife of my friend Robert, who runs the garden where the composters will be going. There are no coincidences. I know that people are being put in my path because I need them and maybe in some ways they need me. Because, when it all comes down to it, wherever we meet is, perhaps, a table. A gift. A sacred space.
As I’m about to start my online “onboarding” tasks for Peace Corps Uganda that will determine the region of country to which I’m assigned, I make plans to meet at a donut shop with a fellow League of American Bicyclists Cycling Instructor classmate named Justine, who is a native Ugandan. I want to better understand the rubber-hits-the-road reality I may face and the possible opportunities for using bikes both as transportation and as my secondary project (beyond my agribusiness/microfinance/home garden role) for female empowerment. Justine (who has been in the USA for just five years) provides generous input on both of these objectives, and plants a seed in me about the benefits of serving in the northern part of Uganda (where he’s from).
My husband comes home long enough for us to celebrate his birthday, and then I jump on a fifteen-hour bus from Atlanta to Fort Lauderdale (with a midnight bus change in Orlando) to take my turn at my father-in-law’s bedside for eleven days. I buy a cheap bike and ride back and forth to his rehab and dialysis locations each day for a total of 147 miles. I sleep on the couch and drink instant coffee and wear the same three outfits again and again. I find solace at community gardens and nature centers I pass, and I get an orange from a farm stand each day and let the sweet juice drip down my arm right there on a corner of a busy road.
This is all a lot to process, and the reality hits hard of leaving not just this 91-year-old but the other four parents we have that are all in their 80s. Plus, once I finally get back home during a night of torrential thunderstorms, the tick-tick-tick of time starts going faster as the weight of all we need to do starts crushing my chest, and an old, familiar feeling starts to creep into my thoughts.
I guess it’s time to tell you the Editor-in-Chief story. When I was a rising senior in high school, I was named the Editor-in-Chief of my school newspaper. I couldn’t figure out how I would even attempt to achieve this role. My school was not nearby and I needed to work at the local Waldbaum’s supermarket to pay for gas for the old car I was driving in order to get to and from school. Being Editor-in-Chief would require me to spend the hours that I was currently working at the supermarket at the newspaper’s office instead, without pay. Instead of asking for advice from my journalism teacher or help from my parents, I did absolutely nothing to solve this problem all summer. Then, the first week of school, I quit the newspaper. I. Just. Quit.
There had already been an article prepared to introduce me, and the editorial team cut out my face in the accompanying portrait and put a question mark there and said they were now looking for a new Editor-in-Chief. People shunned me, and I rearranged my classes so I could leave school early each day. I drove down to the beach (I grew up on Long Island) almost every day and sat on a rock jetty and wrote bad poetry before going to work at the supermarket. To say this entire experience was mortifying would be an understatement. Quitting the newspaper has, in fact, often been what I consider my one lone regret in life. But here’s the lingering, annoying part — I continue to feel that temptation to quit things when I feel stuck between a rock and hard place. Maybe we all do, I guess. Over time, I’ve learned how to catch myself and redirect this feeling by reminding myself to reach out and ask for help. And now, between the elders and the house and the thought of leaving my husband and daughters, I can feel that temptation bubbling up in me again. I voice this thought about not going to Uganda to my brother-in-law while in Florida, and he says, simply, “Of course you’re going.”
My friend Mindy gives me a bracelet that says Trust the Journey, and I’m wearing it just about every day now. It’s helping keep me in the moment and in the hands of my God. It’s reminding me to allow the tsunami of things that are coming at me right now, one after the other, to happen, without judgment, and to see a blessing and a gift in all of it. But mostly, it’s empowering me to keep moving forward, one elephant bite at a time. And to simply refuse to quit.
Chop Wood. Carry Water.
I chop wood. Magnolia and fig and crepe myrtle branches. I carry water. Two gallon jugs, one in each hand, up the hill in my neighborhood to the power lines where the sun rises and I give my arms a rest before the downhill walk home. I know I will need to one day be able to carry 40-pound gerrycans of water, and I have a long way to go to be able to do that.
Chop wood. Carry water, I tell myself. Chop wood. Carry water. Just do what needs doing, the next right thing. Don’t judge. Don’t overreact. Don’t think about the headline-news-worthy locust attacks of Biblical dimension decimating Ugandan farmers’ crops. Just chop wood. Carry water. And then do it again and again and again.
I am making progress, clearing things out, getting ready to start the house repairs, when the urgency of moving my father-in-law from rehab to assisted living becomes abundantly clear and my husband and I both make second trips to Florida. I hear a metaphor about when you’re juggling multiple balls in the air to realize that some of them are rubber and some are glass and you can’t let the glass ones drop, and I think of how this man is glass and the house repairs are rubber and it’ll all somehow work out. I also never thought I would see him again so this trip turns out to be an extra blessing. By the time my husband and I leave Florida, we are proud of ourselves for setting him up well and leaving him in a good situation.
We are barely home, however, when our younger daughter comes home from her university for spring break, and right on the heels of that, the global coronavirus pandemic explodes across the United States. Within days, universities (including hers) announce a move to online classes and she is now trapped in the suburbia she was so happy to escape, everything and its mother closes, and my father-in-law’s new residence restricts any outside visitors, including my brother-in-law who was our local source of first-hand information and help. An upcoming trip to New York to say goodbye to my almost-87-year-old father and stepmother gets cancelled, and my 84-year-old mother’s senior home starts showing signs of going on lockdown as well. Political leaders and the media debate how serious any of this is, but I sense that things are seriously going down and I buy a ridiculous amount of powdered peanut butter and Parmesan cheese.
At the same time that members of my Peace Corps cohort are starting to connect on Facebook, the Peace Corps Uganda desk in Washington D.C. sends an email saying they are watching the coronavirus situation closely and require that we do not travel internationally for two weeks prior to our June departure date. I see in the daily Ugandan news that there is not yet one case of coronavirus in Uganda and that people from the United States and other places with active coronavirus are heavily restricted from entering the country. How ironic, I think, that I was so worried about so many things that I could catch there and they now have good reason to be worried about catching a life-threatening disease from me.
Chop wood. Carry water.
I continue to get up each day, chop bushes and trees, and carry my water jugs, and it starts becoming a welcome highlight of my day. Not only do I get a much-needed moving meditation and exercise, but I also get to say hi and chat from a distance with many neighbors whom I didn’t know before, which makes me feel more socially connected here, which is an odd outcome during this time of increased social distancing in order to reduce the chance of spread of the disease. I also notice spring’s first buds and how a cardinal couple has chosen one of my trees as their growing family’s home, and this makes me feel better about just about everything momentarily, although it feels odd for it to be spring and for me to not be planting.
One morning while walking down the hill, jugs in hand, I cross paths with a tree company chopping wood and then running it through their chipper, and I make a spontaneous decision. I ask if they will dump their load of wood chips on my property just down the road, which they do, grateful to now not have to pay to dump them. I then grab my pitchfork and start spreading the chips in all the garden beds I had recently eliminated to prepare them again for planting. There is still time for me to bring a spring crop to harvest, and if my service to Uganda gets delayed or cancelled, I realize I’ll be ready for summer planting as well. I move soil and plant seeds as I’ve done during every storm or tragedy since 9/11 and I feel like myself again. Grounded.
I don’t know what tomorrow or next week or next month will bring. I don’t know if I will go to Uganda in June, or ever. I don’t know if I will see the five elders in my family again, or what havoc will happen or history will be made because of coronavirus. I just know that as long as the sun rises each morning, I will chop wood, carry water, and try to do the next right thing.
Life in the Age of Coronavirus
The Pentagon orders 100,000 body bags. Forty-five refrigerated trucks to hold corpses dot the five boroughs of New York City; a tent hospital opens in Central Park; and heartless mass burials happen on an island named Hart in the Bronx, on the western end of the Long Island Sound, the body of water that separates Long Island from Connecticut where I used to go to the beach as a child growing up in a Long Island village named Mineola.
Instead of a fat sports section, since all sports leagues are shut down, the Boston Globe sports eleven pages of obituaries on Easter Sunday. My older daughter is locked down at her boyfriend’s parents home in Los Angeles since her roommate is a healthcare worker at high risk of the virus. And my father-in-law, now back in rehab due to a fall that resulted in a dislocated hip, is running a high fever and having trouble breathing. He has been rushed to the hospital and the decision is made to not put him on a ventilator. He is tested for coronavirus but results won’t be back for two days, yet hospice is recommended. Decisions must be made, most likely today, sight unseen, and they are not easy — even with these facts, even in these times, even at his age in his condition.
It is Week 5 since my husband started working at home and my younger daughter started attending college online. All her belongings are still trapped in her apartment a block or two off Boston’s Commonwealth Avenue, despite her school’s offer to ship and store everything, despite the Task Rabbit we hired to buy and bring boxes there and the friend who kindly packed them. Should we have canceled her flight back when this all first started? Should she have just gone up and taken care of her possessions herself? This nags at me. Should our older daughter move back home, and if so, when and how and what happens to all her stuff, and her life, in L.A.? Should, should, should. There are no right answers in the unprecedented, historic days of this new reality. I sit at the dining room table (which we thankfully decided not to donate yet) and sew face masks. I carry food scraps outside and spin them in my composters (which I delayed giving away as well). I pray.
And as for the Peace Corps? Well, for the first time in its 50-year history, the Peace Corps evacuates all volunteers globally — more than 7,000 from over 60 countries — and literally ends their service. If I had left at the beginning of March with the Jamaica cohort for which I originally applied, I would have served a total of three days in-country before being evacuated and considered done, complete, finished — an official Returned Peace Corps Volunteer with absolutely no impact or learning to show for it.
A series of emails from the Peace Corps take me on an on-again, off-again rollercoaster regarding my June departure for Uganda, ultimately ending with a message to all invitees globally that the earliest possible departure date now will be September 30, 2020, and that actual departures will be determined on a country-by-country basis. The recently-evacuated volunteers will be invited to reapply in an expedited process.
According to news from Uganda, although there have been a number of coronavirus cases there, today is the fourth day in a row that there are zero new ones. The locusts, however, continue their destruction, and the combined impact of these two disasters have plunged the country into a deep food crisis. As an invited agribusiness specialist who would be charged with helping families create home gardens as well as helping farmers develop added-value products and micro loan communities, I still feel like I have skills and passion and purpose to offer — in fact, perhaps more than before as my home garden, now suddenly abundant again, reinforces this belief.
Or am I simply suffering delusions of grandeur, thinking I am capable of more than I am? Am I perhaps unprepared to walk from the heat into the fire? Is a place of even more dire circumstances really how I should spend the precious, unrepeatable gift of time that I have been granted by my Maker? Am I about to make the biggest mistake of my life? Or, I get to thinking after huddling in the little bathroom next to the kitchen with my bike helmet on during a recent tornado warning (on top of everything), should I be more like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz when she ends the movie with these lines: Home! And this is my room — and you’re all here! And I’m not going to leave here ever, ever again, because I love you all!
This final decision to stay or go does not need to be made yet, and may not even ultimately be made by me. There is an entire season between now and then — a season of life, and death, in the age of coronavirus.
If Not Now, When?
Two weeks before I was originally scheduled to leave (first for final staging in Philadelphia followed by the flight to Entebbe International in Uganda), it rains violently. Thunder, lightning, the works. It’s the outer rings of the first potential hurricane of the year, which coincidentally has the same name that my father-in-law has. (Had — it is five weeks now since the Zoomeral, the online funeral we hosted for him.)
My house secure now from the storm’s onslaught, I see this bounty as a gift. The rain releases nitrogen from the sky and nourishes what’s now become a large sharing garden on my front lawn from which passing neighbors, names previously unknown to me, harvest. Kale. Herbs. The last of the radishes. The first of the tomatoes. Blackberries and beans soon to come. The questions I get asked are so basic. How many radishes grow on each plant? (One. It’s a root crop, just like onions and beets.) Why do you have a teepee of branches where the beans have sprouted?(They grow as a vine and the branches will provide support for them. You’ll see, I say.) I have provided food and knowledge, as I was supposed to do in Uganda, and this is a small consolation during these stuck-at-home times.
I’m now carrying water jugs up and down the hill that are almost three times the weight of the ones when I started, and my daughter in Los Angeles asks me to write a piece about the experience that she adapts for a theater there. This is a gift to me, for us to be able to share this creative expression. It’s also a reminder of how such small and simple actions we take can have a ripple effect and can lead to something bigger than ourselves.
Something else bigger than myself starts to percolate as I ride my bike to run errands (the post office to mail masks; the supermarket for a quick essential; takeout to keep a local coffee shop in business that may actually use coffee beans from Uganda). I adapt a bike class I had previously created and taught into what seems to be the first bike class in the world delivered via text. It is designed specifically for teen girls and women, who are underrepresented in our public spaces, and I pilot test it in the USA. I know that bikes change lives and I see that they are having a surge in popularity during this pandemic. In the back of my mind, I think of the girls in developing countries who spend hours each day carrying water and finding firewood, thereby missing school and putting themselves at risk for sexual assault, or the women who can’t bring their products to markets easily.
I read once that bike riding is seventy percent faster than walking, and I wonder if perhaps this little class I created could be adapted for wider use globally. We are all encouraged to take on a secondary project during Peace Corps service, and I consider, perhaps, if this could be mine — and if, maybe, I don’t even need to wait. If, perhaps, I can do more from the bottom of this hill in suburbia than I thought possible.
Each morning when I wake up early to write (I’m back to bad poetry, a collection titled The Masks We Wear), it is still dark out and I hear owls cooing, Who, who, who. I answer in the words of Hillel, the Jewish sage and scholar: If I am not for myself, who is for me? When I am for myself, what am I? If not now, when?
If not now, when?
If not now, when?
“Say it like a mantra,” the best friend of Nicholas Cage’s character in that movie The Family Man says about something, but I hear these words as a mantra now.
If not now, when?
Reminded of those days on the rock jetties when once I had quit, I know now I won’t. Without question, without any idea of what’s next as the sun rises yet again in suburbia, I pick up my jugs. And I start the climb.
Pattie Baker is an urban organic farmer, League of American Bicyclists Cycling Instructor (#5384), the author of Food for My Daughters, Bucket List, and Traveling at the Speed of Bike, and a Mensa member. She blogs at FoodForMyDaughters.wordpress.com and TravelingAtTheSpeedOfBike.com, and is working on a book about serving in the Peace Corps. This is an excerpt.