I know what I’m looking for, but right now I just don’t know how or even where to begin.
Last week I traveled back to St. Lucia for my cohort’s Close of Service (COS) Conference, which came and went like a passing breeze. It was a challenging week emotionally, as one PCV described the atmosphere as akin to, “that feeling you get right before a break up.”
I found that expression to be an accurate one, as this conference was to be the last time that we as a cohort were going to be together in one place. Nearly two years ago to the day, we all met as strangers at a hotel in Miami. After seven weeks together in the rural St. Lucian community of Desruisseaux, we became friends as we fumbled our way through this new and exotic world. We were then dispersed across a wide range of communities spanning four Eastern Caribbean islands, bound in a mission to improve primary literacy rates across the EC.
Alone in our respective communities, each one of us assimilated. Individually yet collectively, we found our niche, our purpose, our identity. The first year came and went as we gained the necessary experience to be passed on to the incoming group of Volunteers the following summer. Shortly after the second year began, our Mid-Service Training (MST) in St. Lucia was upon us in a blink of an eye. We were all reunited for the first time since our Island Reveal Day, which at that point was over a year and a half ago. Sure enough, during our MST everything had picked up just as we had left it. After long days of training sessions and presentations, we spent late nights playing games and music, swapping stories, and sharing drinks. The week of MST finished nearly as quickly as it had started, and we were back in our communities for the next seven months until our COS conference.
The very same COS conference that I just returned from.
COS had always seemed like it was forever off in the distance, a mirage in the desert.
COS seemed like a dream.
That is, until it became a reality.
The conference itself came at an appropriate time for me. The weeks leading up to it had been challenging, to say the least. Lately, it’s been a never-ending roller coaster of emotions as I grapple with the anticipation of finally returning home; but not without the heart-breaking realization that I am going to have to close this chapter of my life, with all the people that have played such an integral role in it, for good. I was feeling a bit burnt out, so to speak, and consequently I was ready for a little escape to St. Lucia to spend time with the people I started this incredible journey with.
Myself and fellow Grenada PCVs Katie Riley and John Lyness flew in a weekend early for the conference. We booked an Air BnB with some of the Lucian PCVs in the beautiful coastal town of Soufriere, St. Lucia. Nestled beside the awe-inspiring landmark of the Piton Mountains, there was no shortage of things to do. We explored the local beaches and restaurants. We hiked to Sapphire Waterfall, snorkeled the reefs at Anse Mamin Beach, and stayed out late on the veranda under Petit Piton’s looming silhouette against a luminous backdrop of clouds and stars.
When the conference finally began, we underwent the many medical exams and paperwork that come with closing out Peace Corps service. The conference provided ample time for each of us to reflect on our experience. We were given the logistics on how to book our return flights home. We were provided with guidance on things such as resume writing, interview skills, graduate school, financial planning, and our Non-Competitive Eligibility for federal positions as they relate to our service. Then at last, we received our certificates of completion that were signed by our beloved former Country Director Mary Kate Lowndes and the respective Prime Ministers of our host countries.
Outside of the numerous training sessions, we made the most of our time together. Whether that meant dinner at the Marina, hanging out by the pool, hiking to Mt. Primard, late night walks to Reduit Beach, or watching Aristocats at the outdoor television beside the bar, there was always something going on.
Like the PCEC staff always said from the start, we truly were “an active group.”
But here’s the thing about experiencing something like a Close of Service Conference. The whole purpose of the conference was to, well, “close out” our service. Yet, it’s this very concept that I continue to wrestle with each and every day as my time here winds down. The idea that you can just close an experience as profound and intense as the Peace Corps as simply as the closing of a door, is just impractical.
Myself, along with the twenty-four remaining PCVs in our cohort, have just devoted two years of our lives to our designated communities. As inevitable as time itself, you become attached to certain people and places.
For those that might recall, last summer I went to St. Lucia to participate in the Volunteer Advisory Council meeting (as I served as Grenada’s island representative for a year during my tenure), as well as helped facilitate the training sessions for the newly-arrived group of Trainees at that time. While I was there, I made a brief stop at the PCEC Headquarters in Rodney Bay and happened to cross paths with a second-year PCV who was preparing to return home the next week.
I couldn’t help but ask him, “How’s it feel?”
“You know, it’s kinda strange,” he replied. “You devote two years of your life to a certain place and then somehow you’re just supposed to up and leave.”
At the time I responded with a light-hearted laugh. But now that I’m in his shoes, a year later, I understand exactly what he meant.
And to be frank, it’s devastating.
Everything about my life down here has been intense. One thing I’ve come to love about the Caribbean is how unfiltered and unapologetic it is. What you see is what you get, plain and simple. Having moved down here on my own, I was forced to not only experience the community and culture for what it is, but I’ve had to confront and expose myself for who I am. You learn a lot about yourself in isolation within a foreign world. I’ve discovered what I love, I’ve discovered what I don’t. I know what I’m comfortable with and with what I’m not. I’ve come to understand myself in a way that I’m not sure I ever would have if I hadn’t come down here.
All in all, I’ve had some pretty incredible highs. But I’ve also had some pretty devastating lows.
Yet one of the most critical things I’ve learned down here is not to shy away from my emotions during these times. Early on in my service, I came across a copy of Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom. Many of you have probably read it at one point or another. If you haven’t, you should.
It’s a story about a man named Morrie, diagnosed and dying of ALS, otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. His outlook on life, love, and happiness, when confronted with his imminent and inevitable death is admirable. The story itself provides ample guidelines on how to live a fulfilling and enriching life. At this point I’d like to bring in a quote from that book:
“If you hold back on the emotions–if you don’t allow yourself to go all the way through them–you can never get to being detached, you’re too busy being afraid. You’re afraid of the pain, you’re afraid of the grief. You’re afraid of the vulnerability that loving entails. But by throwing yourself into these emotions, by allowing yourself to dive in, all the way, over your head even, you experience them fully and completely.”
I’ve taken this advice to heart and rather than bury my emotions, particularly during stressful and difficult times here, to instead simply experience them. The handful of times during my first year that I was experiencing homesickness, I simply just allowed myself to be homesick. Due to that, I now have a full understanding of what it means and how it feels to be sad, lonely, or depressed. Out of that I’ve developed healthy coping mechanisms, despite still having some coping mechanisms that maybe aren’t so healthy. Either way, I have grown from that experience and can use it to my advantage as I come across other emotionally-challenging times that are bound to come my way.
Times like preparing to leave a place that I have completely and utterly fallen in love with. Times like saying goodbye to people who sometimes understand you more than you even understand yourself. Friendships formed abroad are unique. They are whole, unfiltered, and intimate. In this case, saying goodbye is almost like saying goodbye to a part of yourself.
So when it was finally time to say goodbye to the PCVs and staff that have undergone this intense, life-changing experience with me, I thought I was prepared.
I was wrong.
I tried keeping a level-head, freezing my emotions until I could release them in isolation. Instead I focused on savoring the moment, which is something I don’t regret. However, looking back now I feel like the whole Close of Service experience was, honestly, a little bit frustrating. At the time, I couldn’t quite pin what it was that made it frustrating. But now I think the frustration was borne in the fact that I was searching for something that was not yet meant to be mine:
I’m ready for home. At the same time, deep down I’m still not sure I’m yet ready to leave. Serving in the Peace Corps has been an absolute dream. It has been everything I could’ve imagined and more. I’ve loved every minute, every up, and even every down.
Although I may not be ready to leave, I have come to accept the fact that I may never be. But that’s also the thing I’m coming to understand about closure.
Closure is not just something you can will into existence.
Closure is not something you can just pull out on a whim.
Closure comes not when you demand it to, but only when you’re truly ready.
Closure requires time.
So as I wrap up my last few weeks on-island and transition back to life in the States, it’s going to take time for me to gather my bearings. They say that re-adjusting to life back home is more difficult than adjusting to life in your host country. Honestly, I have no idea what to expect.
But I need to trust that all in due time, closure will come.
There will be times where I’ll struggle, where I won’t necessarily “be okay.”
Nevertheless, I’ve learned to be comfortable with that through my experience down here. Sometimes, it’s okay to not be okay. The times when all you can and should do is simply experience your emotions for what their worth, that’s when we are truly confronting life for what it is.
That’s also precisely what I’ve loved about this whole thing. The intensity with which I’ve lived down here is something I hope never to lose. Part of me almost wishes these goodbyes weren’t so difficult. In reality, though, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
When it was time to say goodbye, I stood in the lobby of the hotel. Setting my backpack aside, I turned to PCVs Suzanna Swanson and Madeleine Humm. As I hugged each of them goodbye, my stomach bottomed out. My head started spinning, dizzied by the flurry of heartfelt farewells to people with whom I’ve become attached and comfortable.
“Take care of yourself now, okay?” Was the only thing I could muster past the lump in my throat, choking back the tears.
Then picking up my backpack, I turned and walked out the sliding resort doors and didn’t look back. The tears were pressing against the floodgates as I approached PCVs Emily Combs and Jamelyn Ebelacker, who were waiting outside the bus scheduled to take the St. Vincent and Grenada PCVs back to the airport. Another round of hugs, another round of choking back tears, only now not very successfully.
Wiping the tears away from my eyes, I stepped onto the bus and took a seat by the back-corner window. The bus pulled out onto the road and away from the resort.
I didn’t look back.
I didn’t look back because in my mind I already have a lasting vision of St. Lucia — and it’s beautiful.
St. Lucia, because of the people I’ve met and the experiences I’ve had, will always hold a special place in my heart. Any time I’ll hear that name or see that flag, I will have nothing but fond memories to recall. Thinking about it now, I can’t help but smile.
I might be a little closer to getting that much-desired closure. But I think I’ve come to terms with the fact that I won’t have it for quite some time. If saying goodbye to St. Lucia was that difficult, there’s no telling what’ll happen when I have to say goodbye to Grenada.
But I’ll cross that bridge all in due time. I just have to be patient and let the closure find its way to me.
In closing, there’s just one last thing I’d like to share. Our Director of Programming and Training in PCEC, Patrick Triano, closed out our conference with a quote that really hit home for me:
Goodbyes are not forever,
Goodbyes are not the end,
It simply means
I’ll miss you
Until we meet again.
EC 89, I will miss each and every one of you. Thank you for being a part of my journey here in the Eastern Caribbean. My life will never be the same because of this experience and each of your roles in it. It was an absolute honor to be considered in the company of some of the most amazing people I will ever meet. I wish each one of you all the best in all your future endeavors and I sincerely hope we cross paths again.
Until then, I’ll miss you all.