Anniversaries Worth Celebrating
Anniversaries, in my experience, with family and friends, coworkers and communities, are generally celebrated around when you have something you didn’t have before. Another year of life. An achievement. Anniversaries exist for when you lose something too, a loved one, for example, but they are seldom celebrated.
I didn’t know it but I had been anticipating the celebration of the 60th anniversary of Peace Corps since before New Year’s. In December I received an email invitation to ‘celebrate’ the connection between Peace Corps service and my current employer, UW-Madison, Division of Extension. I was asked to write what I learned that I carry into my work currently, and if I could, provide a photo.
I found it difficult to ‘celebrate’. First, the paragraph I crafted could not be limited to the three years I was a Peace Corps volunteer because that experience had flowed into ten total years in Guatemala. Second, as I read over my text, the tone did not strike me as joyful, the appropriate emotion for celebrations.
I drafted. I edited. I cut. I abandoned the text over the holidays, and in January, I sent the text to a colleague who was also submitting. Though never truly comfortable RSVPing to this particular party, I took a breath and sent the paragraph. I also worried it was still too long, in the same way I worried my two permitted checked bags for traveling to Guatemala the first time were too heavy.
The publication arrived as a Special Edition of a quarterly e-newsletter in mid February. The anniversary was officially celebrated. Those who had submitted emailed each other back and forth about how fun it was to read everyone’s stories. I opened the document. I scanned. I sometimes paused to see what people had sent as pictures, something else I had fretted over as symbolic of the kind of interactions I had while in country. I did not read a single story, not even my own, though I did note how much longer everyone else’s articles were than the original submission requirement.
How was it that everyone was celebrating so profusely, except me? As anyone reading might anticipate, I could say, “I didn’t know.” In fact, I did, I do know. I can easily thumb through files and read my Peace Corps application. I know that its content revolves around two pieces that I still struggle with in the social justice and anti-racist work I am committed to today: 1) the concepts of “good”, or as my former Peace Corps friend noted last week in her anniversary post ‘white savior’ mentality, and 2) ‘good enough’ as my friend again so deftly noted as the ‘hubris’ instilled in volunteers. I should not be surprised, because Peace Corps is a program that doesn’t escape systemic racism any more than programs I had worked in since then. It would be no surprise that I had not yet made my decision to write a blog post on this topic with the question of ‘value’ still unanswered.
Is this an anniversary worth celebrating? Again, as anyone reading might anticipate, I should say, “No.” In fact, no, my answer was, “yes”. I sat in an equity workshop on a Friday afternoon reading and listening and remembering, not of how I failed to do anything for anyone else but instead recognizing what that experience gave to me. It is true that it is generally uncommon to celebrate experiences that caused sadness or discomfort, and many pieces of Peace Corps made me sad and uncomfortable. If my initial sentence was true, we do generally celebrate when we gain something. This makes the act of celebration accurate. I gained something. I learned something. More importantly, I learned that I always need to keep learning. Moreover, ideas like “good” are part of a binary that is not productive.
I used to say, when telling my entire story much longer than a paragraph, that I had lived three Guatemalan lives, but in fact, perhaps I continue to live multiple Peace Corps lives, my current position only being the most recent. That means that this year Peace Corps celebrated its 60th birthday, and I my 5th. On your birthday, you often ask your parents how you were born, mine goes like this.
“I had sat for ten minutes, maybe fifteen in my car parked at the curb, head against a thinner window the width of the envelope in my hand. Fear in my breath wrapped round my stomach and pricked my skin. Bitten fingernails imagined a few pieces of paper sealed in a pre-printed envelope and my brushed eyes the mailbox. After reading sentences in old papers from my teacher education philosophy course, I plagiarized myself for the Peace Corps essay and signed the application.”
From that beginning, I continue to write different middles with the hopes of particular endings. In this post, I share the link to the Special Edition of our quarterly e-newsletter, in hopes that anyone who reads the stories might find their own stories that if begun again, will have endings written by authors celebrating increased capacity. https://spark.adobe.com/page/ytHuV7segkgpE/
P.S. There’s opportunity for you to share your stories/photos as part of UW-Madison’s 60th anniversary celebration of the Peace Corps. They have set up a web form where you can share your story/photos and they will include it on the 60th Peace Corps Anniversary web page. The link to the web form is: https://peacecorps.wisc.edu/share-your-story/