Gratitude

When I was preparing myself for the Peace Corps, I read a lot of blog entries from current volunteers to better understand what I might be getting myself into. Contacting a few helped fill in the cavernous gaps in information that I needed to make a solid, mindful decision. I did not know it at the time, but this began my initiation into the Peace Corps family.

In its early days, the family was small. These “government-issued friends” tended to be the people with whom you served and the community of returned volunteers in the United States. Now, in 2013, the internet is more accessible throughout the world and volunteers are able to connect with each other while they are serving, no matter which country or continent, in almost real-time. How cool!

Occasionally, I check back on a few of the blogs that I read before coming to Mexico. A few days ago, I clicked on my link to Mari and Paul’s blog to see how they were doing in Ecuador. It feels a little funny to read about someone’s life that you have never met in-person, but Mari’s writing style makes you feel like you have been friends with her for years. Anyhow, I came across a post that she wrote back in April, and it really stuck with me. She mentioned that she has a strong sense of gratitude.

Take a moment. Read it. Come back to this post with her words in mind.

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I agree with Mari; gratefulness is both a celebration and a coping strategy for:

  • the good – appreciating the wonderful world that we live in and the support that we have;
  • the bad – giving up the need to control things that are out of our hands and rather focusing on the good that inevitably comes paired with the bad; and
  • the ugly– altering our perspective from our initial frustration into something more productive. What will we learn from this that will make us stronger?

Maybe that is why so many volunteers are grateful people. We live through tough challengesevery day. We all have a variety of coping strategies to deal with the stresses. My favorite, like Mari’s, is to approach daily life with gratitude. And occasional movies in English, running, Skype dates…you know, the usual.

We are thankful for what we have and creative with how to use it

We are thankful for what we have and are creative with how we use it

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After reading her post, I immediately flashed back to my first weekend out of Peace Corps training. My Spanish was limited and I had not made friends yet. My entire community consisted of the two other volunteers who lived nearby and our host families. I also had a love of cooking and Thanksgiving.

It is my favorite holiday, bar none. I love putting creativity into a slow-cooked meal, juggling the many recipes as well as the many cooks in the kitchen, working all day to create something collaboratively with loved ones, and that the day finally culminates in full, glowing, happy dinner guests. My rule is that before we can begin eating, everyone shares why they are thankful. It is the best part!

So, during my first week in my new home, with shaky Spanish, an inability to find the “right” ingredients, and an extraordinarily limited community, I decided that Thanksgiving was happening. Period. The nearby volunteers and I teamed up to shop – which went something like this, to shlep the hard-found ingredients up the mountain on public transit trip after trip, and to cook all day. When the meal was on the table, I carefully explained the traditions of Thanksgiving to the host family, emphasizing the bit about how everyone needs to share what they are grateful for. I started. It probably sounded like this:

I am happy that I am here. I like that I can cook with my new friends, and that I can eat a meal with a new family. I feel lucky to live here in Mexico and learn about your culture, but I am also very excited to share a little bit about mine with you. This is my favorite holiday to share with my friends and family, and that is what you are to me now. Thank you everyone.

I am sure that my grammar was worse and my accent probably hid about 1/5 of the meaning, but that did not matter. Everyone else took their turn. It was wonderful.

Then, after surveying the spread, the host dad asked where the chilies and salsa were. A new bowl was immediately added to the table. While I learned that gratitude is a great way to bond with near-strangers, I also learned that no meal is complete in Mexico without chilies.

Serving Thanksgiving dinner. Bowl of pickled chilies added by host family on left, next to the corn bread.

Serving Thanksgiving dinner. Bowl of pickled chilies added by host family on left, next to the corn bread.

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I have felt gratitude every day that I have lived in Mexico. Even the tough days when I am bent over a toilet bowl wishing earnestly for new organs.

One way that I express my appreciation is the running segment that I have included in every single blog post since my arrival: Making me smile. I want to remember all of the small details that make this opportunity special. I want to share with you what makes life in Mexico so enriching. I hope to inspire others to notice the world around them beyond the deadlines and the routines. We live in a beautiful world filled with so many delightful and fleeting moments. We should celebrate it.

I am genuine when I say that the little things make me smile.

I am genuine when I say that the little things make me smile.

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A while back, I wrote about my newly adapted habits for living with a limited water supply. My aunt shared the following comment with me:

My American sink has a wonderful window that I look out from – EVERY time I do dishes. I think about you in Mexico or Africa and those in so many parts of the world EVERY time i do dishes and pans. EVERY TIME.

Her comment touched me. How rare is mindfulness about things that we take for granted on a daily basis. It made me think about all of the things that I am grateful for lately. Here is a quick list:

  • Friends and family on both sides of the border; especially for the support, understanding, patience, and acceptance that they gift me every day
  • The Spanish verb regalar, which means “to gift.” People use it all the time here
  • Gaining compassion for foreigners worldwide and for the foreigner experience. I recently heard from a foreigner that they had NEVER been invited to an American’s home for dinner during their year in the United States. After hearing that and knowing how important these exchanges are, I vowed to be a better host
  • Learning to see the world through different eyes
  • Watching my best friend here turning into an adult, forming her own person, questioning her values, growing, learning, having crushes, and contributing to her family
  • Being a part of the Peace Corps family – they are my rock during frustrating times, and they understand my experiences in ways that I am not sure others will
  • Learning to be a better self-support system to myself
  • Seeing life not through rose-tinted glasses but through lens of creative problem solving, thankfulness, and beauty in the little things
  • Having good health
  • Feeling the richness all around me in my life
  • President Obama’s recent visit to Mexico, for the inspiring words of wisdom he shared with the young adults here*
  • Being witness to development and people working to better their lives every day
  • Living in one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, discovering variety at every step

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What about you? I would love to know. What makes you grateful?

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Making me smile

  • Seeing a girl in the bed of a pickup truck that was flanked with a rack, swinging on an improvised swing strung between the support beams. She was giggling
  • The rains have started and the park is blooming! Soon I will barrage you with photos of some of the 100 varieties of wild mushrooms, funny insects, and colorful flowers
  • Letting go of fear and embarrassment of being uncoordinated when learning to dance in a second language, just tipping my head back and laughing without abandon, enjoying spinning to the contagious rhythms of the music
  • Graduating from my rock climbing class and receiving this message and photo from another course participant:

    Sentir la roca en tus manos, sentir el vacio en tus pies, pender tu vida de una cuerda, sentir el aire cubriendo tu cuerpo y el sol curtiendo tú ser. Elementos que hacen que la vida se admire en su esplendor y demostrarte que solo tú eres el guía y mentor de tus movimientos y que cualquier error solo es un punto muerto. Hoy termino mi curso de escalada y quiero dar gracias a cada uno de los involucrados y aunque el motivo que me impulso no está, solo es agradecer por confiar en este aprendiz que disfruto cada uno de los momentos y dar gracias a un excelente maestro y conocedor de este disparate fantástico, Paco gracias… Buen curso, a seguir preparándose….

    Which means: Feel the rock in your hands, feel the emptiness below your feet, hang your life on a rope, feel the air covering your body and the sun tanning your skin. Elements that make you admire life’s splendor and show you that you alone are the guide of your movements, and that any mistake is only an impasse. Today I end my climbing course and I want to thank everyone involved. Although the reason is not push me, thank you for trusting in me, this apprentice who enjoys each moment. I want to give thanks to an excellent teacher and expert of this fantastic nonsense, Paco… Good course. Continue to practice ….

Me and my new climbing friends, happy to share graduation day together, high up

Me and my new climbing friends, happy to share graduation day together, high up

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 * Favorite quotes from Obama’s speech:

Despite all the bonds and the values that we share, despite all the people who claim heritage on both sides, our attitudes sometimes are trapped in old stereotypes. Some Americans only see the Mexico that is depicted in sensational headlines of violence and border crossings. And let’s admit it, some Mexicans think that America disrespects Mexico, or thinks that America is trying to impose itself on Mexican sovereignty, or just wants to wall ourselves off. And in both countries such distortions create misunderstandings that make it harder for us to move forward together. So I’ve come to Mexico because I think it’s time for us to put the old mind-sets aside. It’s time to recognize new realities — including the impressive progress of today’s Mexico…

…We believe it’s our responsibility to make sure that we treat one another with dignity and respect. And this includes recognizing how the United States has been strengthened by the extraordinary contributions of immigrants from Mexico and by Americans of Mexican heritage.

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3 responses to “Gratitude

  1. Oh wow, such a post! So much to respond to. Wonderful. And heart wrenching.
    Working in a world-class children’s hospital, I am aware of *so* much that children and their families are dealing with. And how brave they are. There’s a comment the doc’s use about how to tell if the little ones are doing better – “smiling and playful today.” It’s a good sign.
    Those things we take for granted so often; water, health, laughter, friendship, tasty food, music, familiar things, easy communication, safety, being able to do what you want, easily & simply — I guess I just wish everyone could be mindful or that everyone could take it for granted. Not sure which would be more delightful.
    Even after all these years in health care & seeing so many things, I still have trouble accepting those disparities.
    Still thinking of you at my sink. Yup, EVERY TIME! And often wishing you’d take me on a hike in your forest!!!
    Blessing to you & be always safe
    Aunt Kathleen

  2. Speaking of reading about someone’s life you’ve never met…I came across your blog because of a Peace Corps article about volunteer blogs, and I found it really interesting and THEN I noticed all your references to Burkina Faso and West Africa, which is funny because I was a volunteer in Burkina Faso (2009 – 2012) and I still live here. Did you have a friend who was a PCV here? Have you visited?

    I just want to say I think your blog is great, although most of your posts have left me feeling really hungry. 🙂 (The cuisine in BF can leave a lot to be desired sometimes.) It’s funny how so many emotions and situations that you deal with as a PCV are similar, no matter what country you’re in. I look forward to a lot more excellent blog posts!

    • Hello, glad you’re enjoying the blog. I totally agree, the more I talk to volunteers in very different sites and countries, the more I realize that there are so many shared Peace Corps experiences! It is a good way to feel utterly not unique, and at the same time, part of a big, strange family 🙂

      Yes, I have visited BF! I stayed with a friend for a month in a village near Kongoussi. It was my foray into Peace Corps really. Everyone that I met was like “you should really be a volunteer!” and here I am.

      Keep reading, and go and have some delicious sorrel sauce with toh and tell everyone that you’re “laafi!”

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