Tuesday, January 31, 2012

angels and demons

By recent standards, his has been a long silence—about a month and a half since I posted anything of substance.  Why the hush?  Let’s just say that for about six weeks I experienced a wave of exactly the opposite emotions that raised me so high around September and October.  Down, down, and again down, as I’ve never felt before, even in the very blackest times.  Every joy clouded and poisoned, every sorrow magnified.  But it was (is) all part of one experience, being high and being low. 

Recognize beauty and ugliness is born.
Recognize good and evil is born.

Is and Isn’t produce each other.
            Hard depends on easy,
            Long is tested by short,
            High is determined by low,
            Sound is harmonized by voice,
            After is followed by before.

I feel different now: older, more awake, less innocent, and mortal.  And I am thankful that, finally, I can focus again.



If I had to make a chart of how my emotions have changed since getting here, it’d probably look something like this.  Imagine 0 representing emotional Purgatory and 10 being the Garden of Eden.

Another week will make ten months in Indonesia, and it’s already been about seven point five at site.  As you can see from the chart, I came in feeling better than average, and as training went on I was feeling quite good.  I arrived at site in mid-June, things weren’t great for a while, including the start of school.  Ramadan was slightly better, but still not great because of a ridiculous school schedule.  Things immediately improved after Ramadan (start of September), as my schedule changed and I started seeing some changes.  I went on the best four-day vacation I’ll probably ever have, and things just got better after that.  In mid-October, I was as high as you can legally be.  That was right around In-Service Training (IST).  After IST, I didn’t feel quite as wonderful, and could even feel myself getting edgy about not being as happy as I was.  By the beginning of December, despite a lovely Thanksgiving dinner, things were just okay.  Within a week, plunged into existential crisis.  Semester ended, vacation started, and things just got worse, right up ’til about mid-January.  That was the bottom.  And then, some light, a break in the clouds.  There was a week of swinging rather wildly.  And as suddenly as I started feeling terrible (and thus thinking terrible things), I started feeling like myself (and thus thinking good things).  The last two weeks have been a climb to a stable emotional level, mixing some wonderful moments and some more melancholy ones, but nothing like the extremity that I’ve felt at times over the last four months.


The Meatgrinder

I know all Peace Corps Volunteers are supposed to go through huge swings like this.  I don’t mean to make an exception of myself, nor do I mean to dismiss others’ experiences as somehow less intense, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I think there was something atypical in the last four months.  PCVs are known to swing quickly, laughing hysterically one hour and crying the next.  Often there is little to signal the change.  I have talked with many other PCVs about what they’ve gone through, and I sense that my experience thus far kind of stands out in its intensity.  For me, the swings have not come as frequently as for others.  They have built up slowly, like wood being heaped onto a pyre, and then exploded into flames with a dazzling intensity.  It’s been more than high and low.  It’s been ecstasy and despair, invincibility and terror. 

I was told I was about to enter a meatgrinder, but I didn’t expect this.  Imagine running a gauntlet with beautiful naked women battering you with pillows made of kisses on one side, and machete-wielding al-Qaeda operatives on the other.  In the best of times, I’ve felt half-guilty for how much I love it here.  In the worst, I’ve been completely unable to do many of the things I normally love—listen to music, read books, watch films.

I do recognize that a lot of the negative things have been amplified by a growing sense of boredom.  The thrill of the discovery has faded.  The charm of my house’s lime-green walls has worn off.  In fact, everything looks crappy at night under these white fluorescent lights.  Every warble and quaver of the old man’s voice through the loudspeakers is jab at my patience.  The very thought of “passing time” with entertainments like mediocre television and forgettable novels disturbs me deeply.  Despite my complaints about the lack of privacy back in the beginning, at this point the amount of time I’ve spent alone seems ludicrous, given my circumstances.

So I have tried to change things a bit.  I am out more often.  I make—and carry out—more plans with my PCV friends.  I’m becoming ever closer with my students, which is making school far more enjoyable than it was in the first semester.  I spend more time with my host family, and I feel we have grown much closer since the beginning of January.  I spend more time with the boys who live at the school.  I send more text messages and make more Skype calls.  I play futsal (an indoor soccer game) with other teachers once every week, and I tutor a local boy in conversation.

I’ve talked with many people about the things that have weighed me down.  Sometimes it has helped, sometimes not.  For all my personal troubles, my work as a volunteer is getting better.  I planted many seeds in the first six months, and the first fruits are blossoming.  This semester promises to surpass the first.  And outside of school, there are also many, many things to look forward to.  Among them: four-day intensive language course next month, much vacation time that can be used for traveling, arrival of fifty trainees (meaning fifty potential new friends) in April, being able to help with the training, and visits from my brother and some friends in June.



Time goes on, my life seems to get less technological.  My Kindle is broken.  My fan is broken.  There is no internet in my house.  My headphones are broken, which renders my iPod useless and makes recording music rather difficult.  For a month or so, my watch was broken (since repaired).  The critical technologies for me are the cell phone and the laptop.  They are what allow me to work and to communicate with others.  Everything else is expendable, it seems.  Of course, I still have my guitar.  I feel better at guitar than I used to be.

Here’s an early difference between this year and last: I have not listened to any new music nor watched any new television shows since New Year.  I did read the biography of Steve Jobs.  Other than that, I’ve read part of a wonderful graphic novel (Blankets) and have been reading the Tao Te Ching a lot.  I haven’t seen any new movies (excepting Sherlock Holmes in a theater in Surabaya while hanging with some friends), but have watched a few old ones again.  I feel like my “consumption” levels are plummeting.

Do you know that feeling, where your brain has felt out the shape of something profound, but cannot apprehend the details?  Like some familiar smell that evokes the force of a memory, but not the memory itself?  These days I often feel that.  There are these smells of insight that I catch, and they all feel connected, and I want to believe that if I just sat still for long enough I could join all the dots and discern their message, and finally be able to define and articulate my philosophy.  But definition eludes me.

-   Ms. Ani and I devised a simple assignment that, up to this point, has turned out to be the best idea we’ve had all year.  Every one of my 128 students must make an appointment with one of their English teachers (either me or the co-teacher of that particular class) to speak English for half an hour.  The conversation is quite simple—I just go with whatever flow is there.  If the kid wants to talk about something, we do.  If the kid can’t lead, I lead.  The level at which I speak (and the amount of translation I will do) depends on their level of English.  The grade is either 0 or 100, but they cannot pass English with a zero on this assignment.  I’ve had about a dozen conversations so far, and Ms. Ani has done a handful as well.  Flock of birds: meet stone.  It forces the kids to actually, spontaneously produce something.  It forces them to do something courageous (they must make the appointment and keep it).  By the end, all of them are less afraid of having to speak.  It also gives them thirty minutes with the full, private attention of their English teacher.  No friends staring at them, nobody to laugh at their mistakes.  It gives me a chance to ask them personal questions and learn about their lives and interests.  Because there is no grade other than completion, it allows them to experience English as a vehicle for communication and not just as another metric to tell them how good they are.  Many people gasp in shock when they hear THIRTY MINUTES, but the truth is that it needs to be that long.  It goes by quickly—many students want to continue talking.  It needs some time for them to get comfortable and for the conversation to take its own course.  Talking to these kids has been one of the best things I’ve done since coming to Indonesia.


  1. I'm in a coffee shop doing assignments for my online classes I have to take to keep my certification. This post made me laugh aloud several times starting with the xy line graph of your happiness as time goes. You should keep up with plotting that...it would be very interesting over a period of years. Who knew you were a statistician too? Really though, I'm inspired: I'm going to make one too. I'm glad to hear things are looking up now. Growth has to be painful or else it's not growth. I'm currently living the same week on repeat like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. I try to remind myself of how lucky I am. Your writing is great; this image in particular is genius "Imagine running a gauntlet with beautiful naked women battering you with pillows made of kisses on one side, and machete-wielding al-Qaeda operatives on the other." I miss you! Craig is looking for bar tending jobs to fund the trip. We mean business. Luckily I'm rich now so I've got it in the bag. I need a list of things to bring you. I'll see you on skype this week if I can. I've got my Wednesday, your Thursday and my Thursday, your Friday written down. Love you <3

  2. Tim, your Sprechstunde (or halbe Stunde) is a really great idea. I think I might steal it and do something similar with my students. I'll have to talk to a couple of teachers and see how they feel about it, but I don't feel like I've gotten very close with many of the students, and I think this will be a great ice breaker. It's amazing how much being forced to produce a foreign language spontaneously brings language skills to a completely different level.

    On another note: we haven't spoken in forever! We should skype sometime; I'd like to see your face and tell you about my adventures thus far *huuuuugs*

  3. just now read this. ah, Tim. feel for you. if you can erase the cultural buildup around that phrase and just hear it new. a bit wrenching to read. which is great. thank you. sorry if it's annoying for me to be appreciative of something so personal for you. it is rare to encounter well-formed descriptions of emotional experience is all. am thinking about how alien our own emotions can feel to us when they aren't gripping us. do you relate to that at all? you don't have to answer any of these questions by the way. that would be more evident if we were in conversation. you could pick and choose what to respond to. don't let the punctuation be your guide haha. i've been employing a weather image for my emotional atmosphere recently. allows me a little distance from the chokehold. am having this fantasy about being able to get inside your head a bit. i guess just to talk to you is what that would be. hope your right now is good. good meaning that it's opening and manageable. best, tim