MTR x 2

First, you get the official bureaucratic Peace Corps MTR

           My training 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.

           All 46 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!

           This one-day 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.

           After discussing 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 year.

           Much of 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 hands.

           There was 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.

           Finally, 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.

           That evening 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 first light.

Then, 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.

          Where am I now - not just physically, but emotionally?

          During my 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.

          The smile, 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 humanity.

          I 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 I am.

          The United 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.

          Being gay 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.

          Being Jewish 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.

          Being a 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.

          Being an 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.

          Being a 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 me.

          In 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."

          But what 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:

          "Be 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)

          "If you would have a faithful servant, and one that you like, serve yourself." - Benjamin Franklin

          "The man who is swimming against the stream knows the strength of it." - Woodrow Wilson

          "Better keep yourself clean and bright: you are the window through which you must see the world." - George Bernard Shaw

          "Trust thyself only, and another shall not betray thee." - Thomas Fuller

          "To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong." - Joseph Chilton Pearce

          "To 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

          "I pay no attention whatever to anyone's praise of blame. I simply follow my own feelings." - Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

          What is the impact of being true to myself, especially with regard to my daily life in a foreign land?

          Our humanity 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.

          I 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.

          In 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."

          Likewise, 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:

          "ROTARY + LIONS = (star of David)"

          "NO USA + (star of David)) + (swastika) = BU$H

          "USA + (star of David), with arrow pointing toward BUH$" (probably meant to write BU$H)

          I can't 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.)

          Yes, it's 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 get back.

          Many 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, and Zbyszek.