Peace Corps makes me stand still and this stillness can be unsettling. It’s like looking at yourself in a mirror for the first time. Until now, I’ve lived a scattered life. I leave small pieces of myself in every place I’ve been, just as I gain new pieces of myself in each place. I am a puzzle of countries, experiences and people. Somehow through this process, I eventually became a whole person. Over the last 365 days, I’ve thought more deeply about the things I’ve done, the people I love, and the values I hold than I ever have before. I have evaluated my strengths and disparaged my weaknesses. I have tried to understand the person I call “me.”
But this is only one of the people I could have been.
The last ten days have been a glimpse of what ifs, a tour of alternative lives. It took planes and trains to get back to the city I once called home, where I took my first steps towards adulthood. But it didn’t take me long to realize I could never really go back. Hiraeth is a Welsh word which describes this grief over a life past – homesickness for a home you can never return to. This is the feeling I carry with me on my journey back to Botswana.
Don’t mistake me, my ten days in the UK refreshed my spirit. Returning to the rainy English isle was a welcome break from the dusty, existential days in Botswana. It has been three years since the last time I set foot in York – where my alma mater is found – and five years since I have seen many friends. My trip was laced with good food, good company, and good fun – but it also came with moments of clarity and insight. It was a confirmation of many things I have learned in Peace Corps.
True love is becoming more of yourself through another.
The practical excuse for my trip (not that I needed one) was to attend the wedding of a dear friend. To attend her wedding was a great honor for me, and a great pleasure. I have always admired Meg. She is kind, thoughtful, and full of life. Her passions are felt by everyone around her and she cultivates joy with her very presence. A lifetime of unconditional love is her just deserts.
Common wisdom is that you can’t change someone for love – nitpicking a person, trying to drive out their bad habits can only divide. Instead, love should embrace and forgive. This is the love that Meg and Tom have, and it is profound. Having only met him in brief moments, he revealed himself to be her true counterpoint. They are celebrated as individuals through their togetherness. Even before they called each other husband and wife, they shared their lives and were the better for it. It was obvious she had never been more of herself – and they will both continue to grow each day in great part because of their love for each other. Watching their jubilation was reaffirmation that this kind of love exists.
Friendship is not defined by time or distance.
Part of my pleasure came from the opportunity to spend time with old friends. Together we stumbled our way into adulthood, and this was a chance to see where they had landed. It was rewarding to see their successes – and reaffirming to see that some, like me, haven’t landed yet.
More importantly, I saw that friendship isn’t a finite thing. It doesn’t stop when distances grow larger and time grows longer. Even awkward moments eventually filled with familiarity. The years didn’t seem to matter at all. We reminisced in our naiveté, laughing at our younger selves. We recognized the growth in each other, but also the sameness. The feeling of gemutlichkeit is quickly restored.
This isn’t to say all friendships last forever. There are friendships based on shared experiences or shared geography. Those friendships might slip into polite small talk and further on into oblivion. But that’s ok. Not all friendships are meant to last forever. As we discover ourselves, we grow and sometimes that means growing apart. Real, honest, lifelong friendships are based on who we are even before we fully understand who that is.
We all belong somewhere.
There was a moment during my trip when I felt like I had entered a sitcom world. We walked from my friend Kelly’s house to Meg’s house to help with final wedding preparations. Kelly had a bottle of wine and some chocolates, and she caught me up on the latest gossip. Sitting on the floor, doing arts and crafts I suddenly felt like a returning character coming to conclude a plot line. The lives of my friends had all continued in my absence, and I was only making a guest appearance. This is where my hiraeth began. If I had made different choices, if I had turned left instead of right or if I had stayed and not gone, I could have belonged.
And in that moment, I did belong – but there was always going to be a time limit. Just like their lives, mine has also continued on. There are other places I belong now, other plot lines to play out. I will always be a part of their story and they will always be part of mine. I know someday we’ll intersect again, sharing moments together, weaving in and out of each other’s lives. It’s the nature of old friends. Perhaps that’s what belonging means – a great tapestry of lives twisting together at the right moments before separating, only to come together again.
In York (and briefly in London) I found some of the pieces that I left behind. Some of them were memories retold over a pint or wandering around the streets I used to love. They were waiting for me on the benches in the parks and in the embraces of friends. The pause of Peace Corps allowed me to appreciate the movement of my life – and know I ended up the person I was supposed to be.