Archive for June, 2010

On Being an Older Couple in PC Swaziland

June 4, 2010

On Being an Older Couple in the Peace Corps (10 June 2010)

This letter was originally composed for older and/or married Group 8 PC trainees in route to Swaziland. Here we discuss some of the challenges they are likely to face as older volunteers and/or as a married couple as well as some of the benefits. It is not intended to cover all or even most of the stressors likely to be encountered nor to provide a list of effective coping strategies. Rather, drawing from our experience of the past year, we share our personal approach to the process of integration into the Swazi culture and to the roles of an older PC couple. Our model attempts to utilize the significant challenges of PC service as grist for the marriage-building and personal-growth mill. We hope you find it helpful in clarifying your intentions toward whatever adventure you are about to undertake and especially your intentions toward your relationship during the process of transition.

In considering how our volunteer experience may inform yours, it may be helpful to know a little about us. Jordan, a social worker, is 49. John, a retired psychologist, is 57. We have been together for 12 years, share a Southern heritage, a love of the outdoors and a common spiritual path. John has a grown daughter and a 9-year-old grandson, 3 brothers and their families scattered around the US. Jordan has two sisters, one her fraternal twin, her mother and 3 brothers back in her home state of Kentucky. Of course, there are times when it is difficult to be separated from our families. However, we had reduced our worldly possessions down to what fit into a friend’s closet and our 2 backpacks and moved to South America 9 months before joining the PC. So, the process of separation had begun well before we headed to Swaziland.

Perhaps the most important aspect of our marriage is our shared commitment to a spiritual practice. We find it shapes our experience as volunteers as it has our lives together. While we draw guidance and support from many traditions, our path may best be described as Buddhist in worldview and practice. One aspect of our practice centers around finding a point of stillness in the busy mind, taking a seat there and patiently observing the push and pull of old habit energy to “do something!” and responding in a healthy way rather than reacting by giving expression to an old habit. By practicing maintaining space around this dance of energies, we are better able for example, to allow the emotional release of one of us to move through our conversation without allowing the other’s old habit energy to ‘make it personal.’ When we are in top form, we can allow each other space to heal old wounds in the glorious clumsiness of that process, without shifting the focus to the listener and the flood of defensiveness that so often follows.

This process has been described as moving from ‘content’ where things tend to get emotionally charged to ‘process’ where things can be observed more objectively. Within our marriage, the practice allows for a movement toward individuation and provides many opportunities to discover hidden treasures (as well as sleeping monsters) within our relationship. Our commitment to this practice allows us to more easily recognize that challenging experiences, regardless of their nature, are opportunities for growth and healing of the underlying wounds that fuel emotional defensiveness. While we are learning some painful truths about our capacity to positively influence Swazis, we draw encouragement from watching our capacity to observe this process grow stronger. In our experience, given the gravity of the HIV situation in this country (not to mention a host of related tragedies), a regular dose of encouragement is critical for our survival.

We have found that attending to our practice on a daily basis is by far the most important thing we do both as marriage partners and as volunteers. Most days, we both feel blessed to be in a situation that provides so much support for our growth. If your experience is anything like ours has been, we suspect that you will find that your service in Swaziland will be a tempering fire. The heat will draw your imperfections to the surface and lacking your usual distractions, you will be invited to address them. With heavy doses of mutual respect and courage, you can support each other along this challenging path. Is there any better gift for a marriage than the opportunity to support each other’s healing and transformation? Or, perhaps you’re not feeling inclined to sign your marriage up for such an adventure and yours may be a very different journey. We can only speak of ours and hope that you find something useful and encouraging in our words. Wherever your journey takes you, your sense of adventure and “willingness to endure discomfort for the sake of your own or your partner’s spiritual growth” (Road Less Traveled author Scott Peck’s definition of love) will serve you well during your time in Swaziland.

On a lighter note, as older folk, we find a good deal of respect comes our way and we enjoy using that position to share our American way of life. Sometimes it’s John doing laundry or cooking. Other times, it’s Jordan calling our male counterpart or each of us attending meeting and running projects on our own. We find many opportunities to share our views about early childhood education, the place of women in society, environmental sensitivity and animal rights. While we can’t know what will come of our work here, we are mindful that many in the community see us as role models and will learn from observing our behavior.

While as an older and married person, you may be the recipient of a double dose of “respect” from your community. You may soon discover it is a different variety of respect than what you enjoyed back home. Your family, friends and business partners know you, appreciate your unique gifts, talents and colorful personality. You have passed through trials by fire with them. You’ve earned your place in their hearts and they in yours. They truly ‘know you and like you anyway’. Here, the respect runs only as deep as the stereotypes Swazi’s have of Americans and their habit of respecting elders and anyone who is married. Don’t take it personally. It’s just an image of who they think you are that is being “respected” if one can use that word in this context.

Some of the challenges we know that we may face arise from our being a couple in an organization that in some situations, will treat us as individuals. We have received only the best of care from our medical officer and felt like well-tended children the one time she sent the PC car for us during an episode of tick fever (cleared up nicely following a few days of meds). We know from the experiences of other couples that should one of us need to be sent out of the country for medical treatment, the other (unless there were extraordinary circumstances dictating otherwise) would remain at site. We recognize that this may occur and try to keep in mind our experiences with our PC staff. Our experience has taught us that whatever can be done to move us from illness to health, will be done. It also helps when we remember that PC comes under the control of a bureaucratic system that limits our local staff’s range of responses in these situations, especially when we move beyond the country level (e.g. sent to Pretoria for treatment). While we hope that we are never faced with this situation, we pray that our practice will enable us to use it as an opportunity for deepening the level of trust within our relationship and more importantly, an opportunity to test our faith in the ‘unseen hands’ that support us. An opportunity to learn once again, the Truth spoken of by that old Zen master Mick Jagger, “…can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need.”

The loss of roles and ‘self-identity’ is another issue that may be particularly salient for an older volunteer. While you may have enjoyed a position of relative power in the states, in Swaziland, you’re just a Peace Corps Trainee (PCT). Sitting in a room full of kids young enough to be your children if not your grandchildren, and being offered no special place at the table, is humbling. The trainers don’t know that you’ve constructed homes, raised great kids, built businesses, or ran large companies. You’re just a trainee just like everybody else. You may have traveled the world already but as a PCT, you can’t even travel into town without permission or decide if you want to use a cell phone or not. At times, you’ll be reminded of your days as an adolescent. Many similarities, it’s just that with PC, nobody will ask to smell your breath when you come in from a date. On the other hand, you can feel the weight of responsibility that you have been carrying for all these years fall away like a heavy backpack dropped from your shoulders at the end of the fourth day of a strenuous trek. It’s kinda fun to be a kid again. Fortunately, it’s only a temporary regression. Around Thanksgiving, your 5 months of restriction ends and you have much to be thankful for. You can now head off for South Africa or wherever for a vacation just like an adult.

Craving the comfort of the familiar, you might decide to go for a little drive in the country. But alas, you will find that your vacation is yet another reprogramming opportunity. After 50 years of driving on the right, they’ve switched everything around and you find yourself dealing with a mirror image of your finely-tuned road survival instincts. Let’s hear it for cultural diversity! Really though, it’s much easier than it sounds and there are amazingly beautiful expanses of nature, friendly people and great food within an easy drive of Swaziland. And after 5 months of dreary classrooms, khumbis and peanut butter, these simple pleasures are deliciously refreshing.

Many challenges await the older PCV, married or single. For example, it will become obvious that your memory doesn’t work like the 20-somethings around you. Learning siSwati is perhaps the perfect medium for revealing this painful truth. With an impairment in our ‘working memory’, holding noun classes, verb stems, subject concords and countless other grammar rules in short-term memory may be quite the challenge. Trying to extract meaning from sounds that are excruciatingly distinct from English can make you wonder if it was such a good idea to experiment with those soft drugs back in the 60s. But again, it will all work out. With a little effort, you’ll have Swazi’s laughing and smiling at you and generally showing their appreciation for your having taken the time to learn the basics.

Within you host community, you may miss the outward signs of appreciation that you took for granted back home. Imagine bringing a half-day workshop (that back home would have covered the bills for a month) to a smooth closing. All the key points covered, lots of group participation. Good job! You smile broadly and wait for the group to break into those who rush out, those who linger and talk among themselves, and those who with bright moist eyes come up and give you a hug of appreciation. In Swaziland you’ll only find the first two groups. No moist eyes or hugs here. Remember, don’t take comments like, “I thought you were going to give us something today” personally. These folks haven’t yet learned the rules of being a good workshop participant. Their culture and their educational system does not prepare them well in this regard. Give ‘em time and some consistent modeling and know they got something of value from your efforts.

Dealing with younger volunteers can present its challenges as well as rewards. It’s enlivening to be in the company of so many amazing young people. They will renew your faith in humanity. On the other hand, some may project their unresolved parent issues onto you and try to pull you into their old dance with authority figures. But if you give ‘em some space, don’t try to be their drinking buddy or their parent, you just might have some conversations that will knock your socks off. You just may learn that you can be a supportive friend to some of these guys and help mentor them into their adulthood. Especially for us ‘touchy-feely’ want-a-be-helpful types, it just doesn’t get any better than this!