you get the official bureaucratic Peace Corps MTR
class has just reached a landmark in our service. It is the
Mid-Tour Reconnect, more commonly referred to as MTR. Our time
here is roughly half completed. We evaluate our activities of
the previous year and set goals for the coming year.
of us who swore in at this time last year are still in Mauritania!
By contrast, the group that preceded ours had lost more than
half of their members by the time they reached their MTR. Spirits
were high at the realization that we have been accomplishing
what we have set out to do!
event was held in Nouakchott. Though there was a full day of
business to transact, the major part of MTR was social - a reunion,
since it was the first time we had all been together since January.
highlights of our first year experience in small groups according
to our work sectors, and then reporting back to the larger body,
we focused on projects we wanted to be involved in for the coming
the group had the afternoon off, as there were meetings that
involved only those of us who are on certain committees. The
first one was the Volunteer Advisory Council (VAC). This group
has representatives from the various regions around the country,
and I represent Nouakchott. It's a forum through which Volunteers
bring concerns to the PC administration, and then the administration
does the same for us. If you ever served on a student council,
you know exactly the scenario: things along the line of kids
complaining about the cafeteria food, and then the administration
sympathizing by saying that the contract with the catering service
was signed by the school district and, therefore, out of their
supposed to be a meeting to start working on our Close of Service
(COS) conference, which will take place next March. But the
VAC meeting went overtime, so we couldn't hold that meeting.
What we did do was vote as a large group for possible locations
of the conference.
the regional coordinators had a training session. We are the
people who are responsible for notifying Volunteers in our regions
in the event that there is an emergency of any kind. It's a
system that is set up a little like a telephone tree. Several
of the representatives on the VAC are new, so everyone needed
to be brought up to speed concerning this crucial responsibility.
We had had a test of the system the Thursday before this meeting;
I had to contact all the PCVs in Nouakchott and keep a record
as to the time I had made contact with them.
there was a party that I didn't go to - just not my scene, as
those things usually continue very late. I have found it easier
not to go in the first place than to go and explain that I am
leaving early so I can go to sleep because I wake up at dawn's
you get the unofficial personal MTR
I have created
my own definition for "MTR": Meditations, Thoughts,
and Ruminations. Since this is a reflective time for looking
at the previous year, evaluating current status of our projects,
and planning for the coming year, I am using the same past-present-future
model to sort out what this experience has meant for me so far,
along with its implications for the future.
I now - not just physically, but emotionally?
teaching years, I saw several versions of a poster that portrays
a variety of women and men, girls and boys of different ages
and races, bearing the legend, "We all smile in the same
language." It makes a subtle but profound reference to
the needs, desires, and humanity that all people share. It values
women and girls on a par with men and boys; it values all races
equally. Every person on the face of the Earth needs and has
the right to love, a clean environment, education, health care,
food, water, clothing, and shelter. I concur. I don't subscribe
to a "chosen people" philosophy based on religion,
nationality, or any other artificial identifier. We are all
equally deserving of these basic human needs.
as applied to that poster version of reality as well as in face-to-face
real life, is an excellent way to make a connection with people.
Making connections is necessary in this world, and it takes
little effort. We can only advance the causes of international
peace and loving kindness if we recognize and honor each other's
have been able to make connections fairly easily, to
Mauritanians and Peace Corps Volunteers alike. I am realizing,
though, that maintaining those connections requires something
different altogether. There has to be something in common to
share - something that goes deeper than the smile. When I consider
why this is true, I begin by looking at myself and seeing who
States is a place where a person's job is important to his sense
of identity, both internally and externally. From the time I
was 13, I wanted to be a teacher. I was always proud to describe
myself as one. It's a job that deals with all aspects of time:
working with the children and their families who are the way
they are because of their past, teaching them in the present,
and infusing them with a love of learning that will shepherd
them into the future.
As I get
to know people better, I usually continue by defining myself
as a gay Jewish vegetarian. These three words explain more about
who I am and the bridges that I build through both time (past,
present, and future) and space to other people. Finally, when
I am outside of the United States, I have to add "American"
to my self-definition.
describes an aspect of the way that I share love in the physical
sense. Its emphasis is in the present. My gayness seeks its
image by opening doors to other cultures, and it recognizes
that it manifests differently in people around the world. Being
gay in the United States is different from showing same-sex
affection in other cultures.
explains my spiritual values as well as duties that I have toward
others. Its emphasis is both in the past, through a long history,
and in the present, as Jewish people observe traditions in ways
that have become specific to their locales. I have been fortunate
to worship in synagogues in many countries around the world.
What captures my imagination more than anything else when I
do this is the connection that I feel to other Jews.
vegetarian means so much more to me than a diet. It is a way
of walking on this planet and contributing to the life forces
of the Earth in a present that will have long-lasting repercussions
on the future. It's a contribution I make to all people of the
Earth, regardless of their nationality, sexuality, or religion.
American is probably the most difficult of these to explain
because I don't identify with the popular culture and politics
for which our country is the most famous. The melting pot metaphor
of the United States has transformed during the last twenty
years or so, with many people not wanting their cultures of
origin to lose their meaning by melding into one massive "culture"
that is called "American." As a result, the new comparison
is that of a salad bowl, in which all ingredients maintain their
individual form and taste. Look at an assemblage of Americans,
especially in the more diverse communities, and you see the
spectrum of humankind that they represent. All Americans are
not the same, are they? Just like all gay people, Jewish people,
and vegetarians are not the same.
I am a homosexual
by birth, a Jew and an American first by birth and then continued
by choice, and a vegetarian and a teacher by choice. It takes
a lot of consideration and effort to define, maintain, and live
one's values, especially in my case when each of these distinctions
carries its own aura that engenders misunderstandings, prejudices,
stereotypes, disrespect, and hostilities on the parts of some
people. These aspects of my persona are not things that I can
or would want to change as I would my clothing or that I can
choose as easily as the next book I am going to read. They define
undeniable truths about who and what I am.
teacher means synthesizing all of this, learning from who I
am, and then using it to connect to others. I hope that the
result is that my life will be enriched by my encounters with
others, and that their lives will be better for having known
Hamlet, Shakespeare wrote," This above all: to thine
own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man."
does it mean to be true to one's own self? I perused the diary
of quotations that I have been collecting, to see what others
say about the same subject. Several have made their own observations
that play with this concept. Each person has a slightly different
take on the "to thine own self be true" idea:
who you are and say what you feel. Those who mind won't matter
and those who matter won't mind." - Theodore Geisel (better
known as Dr. Seuss)
you would have a faithful servant, and one that you like, serve
yourself." - Benjamin Franklin
man who is swimming against the stream knows the strength of
it." - Woodrow Wilson
keep yourself clean and bright: you are the window through which
you must see the world." - George Bernard Shaw
thyself only, and another shall not betray thee." - Thomas
live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong."
- Joseph Chilton Pearce
know what you prefer instead of humbly saying Amen to what the
world tells you you ought to prefer is to have kept your soul
alive." - Robert Louis Stevenson
pay no attention whatever to anyone's praise of blame. I simply
follow my own feelings." - Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
the impact of being true to myself, especially with regard to
my daily life in a foreign land?
is deep and our cultures are superficial - window dressing,
accessories that spotlight our differences. I am finding, though,
that it is the shared cultures, religion, professions, and language
that bring me closer to people. One of the strengths of American
culture is that we have the freedom to use any of our self-defining
characteristics to create communities of like-minded individuals.
The goal is for each of us to navigate our lives in freedom
- a freedom that I would like for my Mauritanian friends to
experience for themselves.
have been a foreigner since I have arrived here. I am experiencing
how difficult it is to be a foreigner. I will continue to be
one for as long as I live here. Additionally, I have no desire
to leave my own cultural identifiers behind so that I will not
be a foreigner. But being a foreigner takes its toll on the
stranger in the strange land.
Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women,
Geraldine Brooks, a convert to Judaism, is asked about her religion
by a Palestinian (page 156). She says, "I'm Jewish,"
and then she registers the reaction on the face of her new friend.
She couldn't tell if Asya was angry, offended, or what. Brooks
goes on to write, "I'd only lied about my religion once,
just after I'd arrived in the Middle East. It left me feeling
so ashamed and cowardly that I resolved never to do it again.
Since then my policy had been to tell anyone who asked. Usually
the people I told were intrigued rather than hostile."
sharing my own religion is something that I have been able to
do with Peace Corps Volunteers, but not with Mauritanians. I
would like to take Brooks' position: not lie about my religion.
I agree with her, that this is not something about which I should
hide or feel ashamed. At the same time, I note, within a block
of where I live in Nouakchott, the following graffiti:
+ LIONS = (star of David)"
USA + (star of David)) + (swastika) = BU$H
+ (star of David), with arrow pointing toward BUH$" (probably
meant to write BU$H)
say that I understand exactly what the writer(s) of these graffiti
are getting out, but they don't strike me as complimentary.
They encourage me to stick to the Peace Corps recommendation
that I not say anything about being Jewish. As for being gay,
there seems to be more tolerance for that here - not officially
through the government by way of guarantees for equal rights,
but in the daily practicalities of life in which people give
and take in their facile way. Being in the closet in this way
reminds me about how comfortable my life has been during the
last many years that I have been "out" as being exactly
who I am. It's the way I want to continue to be.
Many people have asked me if I will return to San Francisco
when I leave the Peace Corps and I always say yes, absolutely.
It's the only way that I can regain the pieces that I have noticed
are missing in my daily life. But I am also grateful for the
experience of having had the opportunity to know how important
those missing pieces have been to me. Pianist Arthur Schnabel
explained, "The notes are defined by the spaces between
them." Even from here, in the silence of the desert, I
hear the richness of the notes being played in San Francisco.
In the City
by the Bay, it's not only having "my kind" in such
prominence and abundance, but seeing that we have been able
to craft and participate in a wide-scale community in which
parents request that their children be placed in the classes
of creative gay teachers, the mayor orders his city clerk to
grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and heterosexual
couples with children attend services at my predominantly gay
synagogue because they like the spirit and character of the
congregation. (This is not unique to my congregation, though,
as many churches in San Francisco and the Bay Area house the
same peaceful coexistence.)
true: there is no place like home. It's a place where I am no
longer a foreigner, where I recognize both the physical and
the psychological terrain. It is a place where I see myself
reflected not only in the mirror but also in the population
around me. I am looking forward to being a part of it when I
thanks to the people who helped me to get my thoughts together
by reading the first draft of this post and by sending me their
replies: Barb, Bob, Ed, Geri, Jill, Patti, Richard, Rick, Tina,