Sunday, August 9, 2009

Am I Just the Relish?

I was out to dinner with my parents and brother last night at a foodie restaurant in Front Royal, VA, and my dad asked me what it is I am doing this fall. I nearly choked on my oven roasted lamb shank. Not only have I been doing this work for the last year of my life, but I have been rigorously and diligently documenting it in a series of exhaustive updates. I have written approximately eighty pages worth of descriptions, antecdotes, and travelogue-type verbal snapshots to date since my first sweltering days in Delhi last Septmeber. I reminded my father of this. "Juls, you write about bus rides and kids puking, and some girl thinking she was pregnant. And didn't you go to some Satchinandy ashram place?" My dad is a brilliant lawyer and astute businessman, but for some reason he often talks like Gomer Pyle and has a memory like a worm-eaten sieve, so I rolled my eyes at my brother and mother for the expected sympathetic titters. Only they, too, were looking at me in sheepish expectation.

"Mom, do you know what I do?"
"Well" she grimaced "I know it's something about understanding the culture, right? And sustainability? Seems like you use that word a lot."
My brother was able to elucidate a bit more, chiming in with something about "semester abroad" and "leadership", and truth be told this is pretty close to the mark, but I still felt uncomfortable with the description, like I was wearing a too-tight woolen waistcoat inside out with nothing underneath.

I looked down at my risotto speckled dinner napkin and felt like a teenager with a wierd hobby like Cheeto sculpture or mortuary design, overwhelmed by the task of defending my bizarre preoccupation in front of their parents' bridge club. When we got home from the restaurant, I had a startlingly beautiful email from my old Peace Corps buddy Dee, describing her experience as the director of the Health Volunteer program for Peace Corps volunteers in Ethiopia. No doubt what her job is, no sirree, and no question that she is out there kicking ass and being a shiny (not to mention articulate) beacon of inspired leadership for legions of service-minded American youth. Dee used to be a smoker. If she still was, I might feel a little bit better about this email. Yes, I would grab that shred of superiority and wear it like a bubble flip wig at a drag show. She sends me dear, empathic emails and we swap stories of the rigors of being available to cross-sections of "Generation Me" 24 hours a day. It is sweet of her to equate the relatively benign crises of late assignments and long-distance break-ups I usually intervene with to the "village in dire need of clean drinking water"-type conundrums her volunteers present.

"Could you just wrap it up in a nutshell, Juls?" my dad pleaded for the umpteenth time, and I tried to synthesize the catchy logos and testimonials spattered across the websites of my employing organizations. "Dad, I lead American college students on transformative learning semesters in India." Simple. I felt a surge of optimism that my jazzy sound bite, plus the filet and three microbrews he'd consumed would short circuit his cross-examination. No dice. "But what does babysitting a bunch of snot-nosed college kids have to do with education?" (For my dad, anyone under the age of twenty-six qualifies as "snot-nosed".) I am perturbed by this question not only because of the possibility it presents that my documentation skills may be far less pentrating than I'd imagined, but the niggling uncertainties it spotlights in my own understanding of my work.

I am trivializing and making light of what I do because I don't entirely understand it. It's like throwing a bunch of bizarre ingredients like pickle relish and cotton candy into a mason jar, shaking it really hard, and getting Coq au Vin. It's alchemy. It works, but I don't know how, and I don't know how much of it is due to or in spite of the role I play. More likely than not, I'm the pickle relish, the students are the cotton candy, India is the jar, and Fate is the hand shaking the jar. What if I'm no more than a random ingredient, and the magic that occurs has nothing to do with any skill or proficiency on my part? For some reason (maybe for the reason that I'm thirty-four and seriously wondering what it is, exactly, that I'm really good at, and how in that hell can I use that to do some good in the world)I need to know the answer to this question. Maybe that's why, despite my lingering fatigue and dislike of Excel budget sheets, I am once again about to work way too hard for way too little money at the expense of my sanity and intestinal health. Or maybe I just want to go to Rajasthan?

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