Friday, April 15, 2011

What Peace Corps Means to Me: My Final PCV Blog

PREFACE: Here's who awaited and greeted me, with a big smile, in Sylvania, Ohio: my great-grandson, Philip! So precious! And his mom, my first-born grandchild Julia, and her mother, my daughter Elissa, and Julia's brother, Tony; and my grandkids Alli, Josh, Kyle, and their mom, my daughter Michelle, carrying a new grandson, Chase. A new family member is on the way! We live within a mile radius of each other, except for Tony finishing up school and finding his way in southern Ohio. I am home. I am "returned!" I am officially a RPCV, a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. Can you believe it’s been two years? Philip was 2 years old when I left; now he is reading!

This is my final PCV blog. My Ukrainian adventure has come to an end, but not my Ukrainian experience, my stories, my memories. They will always be with me. They are a part of who I am. Now a new American adventure begins, and a new blog, "Life After Peace Corps.” I look forward to sharing more adventures on the journey we all share.

So here are some final thoughts on what the Peace Corps experience means to me. It’s been a life inspired, a life of purpose. Thanks, dear friends, for following my adventures and cheering me on. It’s been a team effort, that’s for sure!

A Life Inspired, A Life of Purpose: The Peace Corps Experience

When I began work at the public library in Starobelsk, a Russian-speaking village of about 18,000 in far-eastern Lugansk Oblast, Ukraine, I had a minor run-in with a librarian who thought all Americans were ignorant and arrogant. He went on for quite a while, to the embarrassment of the director, but I smiled and said I understood and it was okay. He ranted while I nodded amiably. It helped that I understood only every other word or so!

Near the end of my service, this librarian came up to me to say how much he has liked seeing me work with the Library. The English Club and the English-book collection have brought more people and new energy to the library, he said. He admitted, a bit sheepishly, that he had a bad view of Americans for a long time, especially while growing up, but now he sees we can be friends. I was the first American he had ever met. I responded with a big smile. “I am so glad we got to know each other!”

This is the essence of the Peace Corps experience. When we began our Peace Corps journey, many of us Community Development (CD) PCVs thought that using our skills and experiences in support of Ukrainian NGOs was the top priority, the number 1 goal. We were in Ukraine to be useful, to do good work, to transfer our skills. We embraced this goal with enthusiasm.

Now I think that the two other Peace Corps goals are equally important: getting to know a country and its people, and their getting to know us and America. On this level the Peace Corps experience is about modeling and mentoring good will, optimism, a “can-do” spirit, a positive but flexible attitude. It is about modeling how change can take place and mentoring some ways of achieving goals, one step at a time, from the bottom up.

What does this mean? For me it meant working with an NGO to address human rights abuses through a “Know Your Rights!”civic education project. It meant having fun with kids at a summer Camp, walking around with a globe, maps, and a dictionary, ever-ready to connect and instruct. It involved discussing history, poetry, folk traditions and holidays at English Club meetings. It meant engaging members in hands-on projects like making peace cranes, origami pumpkins, Halloween masks, holiday trees and cultural maps. It meant helping an artist write a cultural preservation grant to preserve the decorative paintings of the ancient Lugansk region. It involved attending seminars of the spoken word, celebrating the publication of a book, honoring local poets and local talents from the past and the present. It encompassed leading literature discussion seminars with English classes at the University, exploring American short stories by Jack London, Mark Twain, Kate Chopin, and Thomas Wolff.

Through all these activities, it was the connections that mattered most. The Peace Corps experience is about building bridges across cultures, and of course it's true: once a human connection is made, it's hard to sever. It feels good to connect on the level of human kindness, on a level that transcends differences. It’s wonderful to be a part of the daily life of a village: enjoying meals, many meals, and toasting to good health and good fortune; celebrating birthdays and holidays, and there are many in Ukraine; visiting a friend’s farm; attending programs at local schools and cultural centers; biking along village paths to go pick apples in fall; swimming in the river in summer, or relaxing on its tree-lined banks; joining friends on a vacation in Berdyansk on the Sea of Azov; traveling around the country; meeting friends like the incomparable Stefa and Bogdan in Lviv; and having tea, many cups of tea, in homes and cafes, getting acquainted, practicing a new language, developing trust and bonds of friendship.

All these activities, big and small, personal, work-related and social, inspire and energize the spirit, feed the soul. They strenghthen the foundation of grassoots change. They create brand new networks among people and organizations in the same village who had not connected before. They build lasting friendships. This was the essence of my Peace Corps experience for two years in the wonderful town of Starobelsk, Ukraine. I will always remember. Я буду всегда помнить.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Starobelsk Rocks: A New Freedom Movement in Ukraine

I think I recognize my friend Olga M at the far right. Starobelsk protests corruption, poverty, government intransigence ( photo from Gromadska Forum Lugansk).

Starobelsk, my wonderful town, is the center of a new freedom movement in Ukraine! The Tunisia/Egypt effect continues in eastern Europe. Change from the bottom up. Everyone thought it was impossible, but not me (not to be boastful). I saw the signs; I listened to the people; I witnessed the emergence of the future leaders of a democratic and thriving Ukraine. I knew it was just a matter of time.

The article below, from the Gromadsak Forum Lugansk (громадеький форум луканщини) tells the story: Starobelsk citizens staged a protest against the continuing corruption and injustice of the regime of President Victor Yanukovitch. Organized by "Patriotic Citizens of Ukraine," a grassroots coalition of concerned citizens, the protesters--brave warriors all--held signs protesting rising prices and taxes, the lack of government reform, ongoing political persecution, unemployment and growing poverty. A main slogan was "Freedom: Ukraine without Yanukovich." I am sure my friends were among the organizers and participants, thoughtful citizens, real "fighters for justice." Olga and Vera both told me one: "We are not afraid. We will fight for what is right." I believed them. I am so proud of my village and its thoughtful citizens. "Starobelsk rocks!" as my friend Yuliya wrote on facebook.

From Громадеький форум луганщини
Вчера в Старобельске возле «Дружбы» прошел митинг протеста против роста цен и тарифов, реформаторских усилий нынешней власти, которые ведут до обнищания большинства населения Украины. Об этом сообщает Параллель-медиа. Инициаторами митинга выступили патриотически настроенные граждане, представители различных политических сил и общественных организаций: «Партія Захисників Вітчизни», «НРУ», ВО «Свобода», «Спілка підприємців Старобільського району «Промінь» и другие. Основными лозунгами протестующих были «Азаров убийца базаров», «Азаров – Тигипко – нас имеют гибко!», «Мы за Украину без Януковича!», «Свободу політв’язням!», «Приймаємо партбілети ПР в утіль по 30 коп. за кг!» В ходе акции протеста была принята резолюция, в которой митинговальщики потребовали досрочной остановки полномочий Верховной Рады и Президента Виктора Януковича, продолжить мораторий на продажу земли сельскохозяйственного назначения на 5 лет, от депутатов ВР — личное голосование, ликвидация депутатской неприкосновенности, а также прекратить политические преследования, в частности, участников налогового майдана.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Goodbye, for now, DC!

DC spring scenes. Dupont Circle, my favorite neighborhood. Below right; a new Target store, Columbia Heights, an up-and-coming neighborhood around a new metro station, Howard and Don, hard to see, near flowers.

I am going home to Ohio tomorrow! It’s hard to believe I left Kyiv, Ukraine, on 9 February, and arrived in DC on 1 March, a little over a month ago. I had made a hasty trip from my COS conference in Slavsky back to Starobelsk to pack it up and say goodbye. My dear friend Natalia on Kyrova, with whom I was living, hosted a beautiful Paka Party, a bittersweet time for all of us. So hard to say goodbye. I considered myself a fulltime PCV, torn asunder from my village, my projects, and the many friends I had made over two years. It was a huge transition for which I wasn't prepared.

It was still winter in Ukraine, but I was looking forward to spring in Starobelsk, walking about town, through Lenin park, and reveling in Luba's and Natalia’s gardens. I was hoping to see the lilacs again, in such grand profusion everywhere, their scent perfuming the air, and the iris: that blessed time of year when Starobelsk becomes “a lavender world.” It’s a time I described in a blog exactly one year ago, one that Loren loved; we reminisced about the lilacs in Rochester, NY where we grew up. It was one of the last blogs Loren read and we discussed together, and it will always be special to me for that reason. He told me he loved the color lavender.

Spring has unfolded slowly and inexorably in DC since I’ve been here, and my perspective along with it. It has eased the transition back to the States, and the realization that I would not be returning to Ukraine. Spring somewhat cushioned the sadness. I've had a gazillion doctors’ appointments, and all the medical issues are resolved. Almaz and Laura W at Peace Corps headquarters were a terrific help. I’ve walked around Georgetown, downtown, Foggy Bottom, Dupont Circle, all beautiful, vibrant neighborhoods. I’ve had lovely lunches and dinners with friends; spent time with Rita, a group 36er, and other PCVs who are staying at the elegant (for PCVs) Georgetown Suites for a variety of medical issues, none critical it seems to all of us. Most of us come to view it as a vacation, after the initial shock of being here wears off. Most of us will return to our sites, like Emily, now back in China, Amy in Ecquador, Brent, back in Azerbaijan, and Sarah, on her way back to the mountains of Peru.

In my case, however, I will not go back. My PC service is officially at an end. Tomorrow, Tuesday, I take the train to my new home in Sylvania. Somehow the transition I'm making from St. Petersburg, Florida to Ohio, moving all my material stuff, doesn't seem as difficult as the transition from PCV to RPCV, moving around the mental stuff and getting it sorted out and organized. DC has given me some time to start the process, and for that I am grateful.

So goodbye, for now, DC. I'll be back, maybe when my PCV friend Jud gets settled in here. He's arriving 29 May he just told me; it buoyed my spirits just to know that. I hope I can return to Ukraine someday, too, or host friends here in the states. Who knows where life will take us, but I will take life as it comes.

Friday, April 8, 2011

It's Not about Spending, It's about Values

This is a SAMPLE federal budget from Pew research foundation. I thought it was interesting and a way to start thinking about the whole shebang.

The fight over the budget is not about spending. It’s not about “reining in” government, and the deficit. It’s not about “fiscal responsibility.” It is about values.

If it was about spending, we would all be taking a hard look at the largest parts of our budget, where cuts would really matter. What programs are we cutting, and why? How will that help the overall budget? What items are we NOT cutting, and why? What about those tax loopholes for the wealthiest Americans and huge corporations like Haliburton, who pay no taxes? What about the tremendous “welfare for the rich” programs that seem to be held sacrosanct? Even Warren Buffet and Bill Gates talk about this, and with more sophistication than our current legislators. What about the billions we give to dictators who line their own pockets and stomp on economic and political freedoms for their people, and the wars in Irag, Afghanistan and now in other countries? How effective are our very expensive post- 9/11 national security programs, and what about them?

If this “debate’ was really about cutting government spending, the so-called “negotiations” wouldn’t be getting “stuck” on funding for planned parenthood, cancer screening for women, medical research, the defense of marriage act, or NPR.

So we are down to the nitty gritty: the Republicans want to “rein in” government spending for the middle class, the working poor, women, kids, the sick, disabled, and elderly. They do not want to rein in government for the rich. Obama ran on the opposite platform, that government has a role to play in our lives. Why isn’t he jumping on this, and the fact that the economic problems we face stem from the riotous deficit spending policies of the Bush/Cheney administration. Where were the tea party zealots then? The president and his economic advisers would do well to educate the American people about the real issues and the real options. I think this is a huge gap in the Obama administration’s handling of this crisis, and of its handling of economic issues in general.

And finally, if this “debate” was about "spending," wouldn’t you think twice about the COST of closing down the government, then re-booting it, no matter where you are on the political spectrum? Would you be yelling with glee "Shut it down," when that will cost taxpayers money and hurt not help the economy? Is this like destroying a village in order to save it? If you really want to cut spending, does this make sense? But, and here's the heart of the matter, is this argument making a dent? Do the know-nothings who are refusing to compromise (on things like women's health) care? Doesn’t look like it. And that’s the real story.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Zealots who don't care about our Government

If the government shuts down, so will Peace Corps headquarters. This will mean a skeletal crew there, and no work getting done. It might mean that my trip home will be delayed, and more egregious, that PCVs all over the world will not get their meager allowances. It’s small potatoes, but it’s the trickle down effect of a government shutdown.

The only good thing for some of us PCVs on medevac is that we are ‘stuck’ in Washington. The government’s a mess, but the city is beautiful. We can enjoy the unfolding spring, the cherry blossoms, the greening of trees, nice sunsets, and good friends. My daughter Elissa went back to Ohio on Tuesday, but we had a nice dinner at an outdoor Harbourside restaurant the night before with friends Howard and Don. These are the small joys of being in DC.

Outside of that, there is the drama of politics at its lowest level. America is in the grip of an ideological minority who doesn’t care about consequences, who care only about pushing their agenda. That agenda involves cuts in education, arts, cancer research, NPR, medicare quarantees for seniors, programs for workers and the working poor. Their drastic cutting doesn't of course include tax cuts for the richest Americans and corporations who don't pay anything. Just the opposite: they extend tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans and tax breaks for large corporations.

“Shut it down,” a tea party Republican screams gleefully at a tea party rally outside the capitol. “Shut it down!”

Isn’t this great? A lawmaker who doesn’t care. What responsible lawmaker would want this? Just shut the government down? “My way or the highway?” Why doesn’t Obama jump on this outrageous behavior? Call it for what it is: protecting the wealthy, screwing the middle class, workers, the poor. This is not about “reining in government spending.” This is about the arrogance of right-wing zealots who don’t care about the US government at all. It’s truly appalling.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Economic Chaos

It’s ironic that the nation’s capital is greening into a lacey lime green while the federal government is “de-greening,” to the point of shutting down. A few characters and ignorant ideologues with “grandiose” illusions have added to the melodrama. Our elected representatives are running roughshod over the will and voice of ordinary Americans. It’s as if we are not even here. They will run the government as they see fit, and the rest of us be damned. The common good be damned. It is so annoying and frustrating that I am beginning to feel like an Arab in one of the Middle East countries run by vicious tyrants that we supported for over 30 years.

At least the government is still running even in Ukraine, I told a PCV friend. HAH, was the somewhat frivolous response. “The Ukrainian government doesn’t have to ‘shut down,’ because it doesn’t ‘run’ in the first place.” Goodness, what’s the world coming to.

People are yearning for self-determination while politicians, worse among them in our Congress the tea party Republicans, treat us as if we are in the way. That’s the untold, unexplored connection between our domestic policies and our dysfunctional foreign policies. I suppose the first step is exposing these weaknesses and the nature of the problem. That is being done now with painful clarity, like unpeeling the layers of an onion rotten to the core.

How callous can one be to think that closing down the government is going to do anything but hurt a lot of people. I am thinking we need to put Bill Clinton in charge of the economy. We have no coherent domestic economic policy. As far as I can see, all Obama’s economic advisers have let him down, and the rest of us, too. There needs to be a leader at the head of the economic ship of state. We don’t have one now, and we are descending into economic chaos made worse by ideologues who are “know nothings” and won’t compromise. Does any sane person think defunding NPR and other “nickel and dime” programs , like student aid or peace corps, are going to solve our economic crisis? Give me a break! Whether the government shuts down or not, our Congress and president have some problem solving to do to get the entire government on track. I can't see a bunch of ignorant minority right-wing ideologues derailing the whole American government as if it were a lego set on the stage of a billionaire's yacht.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Moving On

My next move: a new apartment on the second floor of this old house in downtown Sylvania, Ohio, photo by new neighbor Robin C, and flick photo below by AR Avaritti.

I am nearing the end of my DC medical visit. It’s been great being in DC, a good transition back to the States, but it's as if time has been suspended. I've been in the waiting room long enough! Time for something to happen. The surgery went well. I am AOK! My daughter Elissa was a great help, a blessing. This week I have a few more follow-up appointments with my surgeon (more than I wanted) and my final Close of Service medical appointments, and then I will be going home, to a new home, in Sylvania, Ohio.

My Peace Corps service has come to an end. It happened a bit too fast for me, and it’s a hard adjustment, but I am ready to resettle. I am going into the unknown again, not sure what awaits me, not sure what I want to do. I will feel my way forward, like I did in Starobelsk, but with more ease, flexibility, and life lessons under my belt. I think I’m more relaxed with life as it comes.

I now have attachments I never thought I’d have, attachments to Ukraine, the culture, the people. It will always be a part of who I am, a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. How blessed I am. So I will make a new home in Sylvania, Ohio, near my daughters and grandkids; get my stuff moved up from St. Petersburg, Florida; settle in and settle down.

I will lighten up my load in the process, get rid of furniture and stuff I have accumulated over the years. I have found that I really don’t need much in the way of material things. A bed, a table, a lamp, some books. I grew to enjoy living in one room. It was all I needed. I felt comfortable in a room in a house, sharing space and meals and life in general. I am not sure where my next adventure might take me. I want to keep learning, exploring, stretching.

I am moving on. Also, a new blog, My Post-Peace Corps Life, will emerge shortly, after I'm settled in Sylvania!