For being a foreigner, Ashima is beginning to realize, is a sort of lifelong pregnancy—a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts. It is an ongoing responsibility, a parenthesis in what had once been ordinary life, only to discover that that previous life had vanished, replaced by something more complicated and demanding. Like pregnancy, being a foreigner, Ashima believes, is something that elicits the same curiosity from strangers, the same combination of pity and respect.

—Jhumpa Lahiria, The Namesake

I don’t know anything about being pregnant, but I’ve never read anything that more accurately describes what it’s like to live in a culture that’s not your own.

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The Year After Peace Corps

The beginning of September marked the one-year anniversary of my return to the United States after finishing my Peace Corps service in Ecuador. To be honest, it kind of sneaked up on me. On most days, Ecuador feels like a long distant memory or an epic dream that I finally woke up from one random day in August, not a place where I lived and worked and called home for two years.  So I didn’t even realize the one year mark was approaching until a few days beforehand when it dawned on me like a thought that comes in the middle of the night: I’ve been living in the United States for over a year. My most initial reaction was disbelief; how could an entire year have passed so quickly? I’ve only begun to put my life back together.

A year ago, I left Ecuador feeling deeply disappointed and frustrated by Peace Corps, exhausted by Ecuador’s machismo and lackadaisical work culture, terribly homesick, beaten down, and more than ready to go. Yet, when my boyfriend asked me how I felt to be back in the United States while we sipped our celebratory one-year-in-America drinks, the first word that came to mind was “sad.”  In fact, I could barely keep myself from crying.  As with most things related to Peace Corps in my life, this was not how I expected to feel.  I am more than happy to be in the United States.  I frequently find myself comparing where I am now—physically, mentally, and emotionally—to where I was a year ago, and the overall improvements astound me every time. To say that my life has changed greatly in the past twelve months would be an understatement. As I crawled into bed that night, I realized that what I had taken to be sadness—in other words, an overwhelming urge to cry—was actually extreme and profound gratitude. I closed my eyes and counted the many sources of my gratefulness: being close to family; having a job where people take their responsibilities seriously; working alongside ambitious coworkers; being able to drink water out of the tap at any time; being able to wear a dress in public without being harassed by every man on the street; feeling safe(r); having a community of friends—volunteer or not—who are constant in their love and support and understanding. Yet, beneath all of this, some part of me still yearns for long afternoons speaking Spanish with my Ecuadorian friends or host family, the beautiful, colonial streets of Loja, delicious fruit juices and fresh vegetables, and the perfect if not slightly rainy Andean weather.

The truth is that my Peace Corps experience was complicated and still is.

In recent days, Peace Corps has found itself in the mainstream media on a number of occasions. First, by its own accord, when the organization announced major application changes that will grant volunteers more control over the country and program in which they serve and allow them to leave for service sooner. Then, less positively, in July when the New York Times simultaneously released  a myriad of essays on Peace Corps service written by returned volunteers and an article detailing the tragic medical missteps that eventually led to a Peace Corps volunteer’s death.  Both pieces paint a picture of a dysfunctional, sometimes successful, more often flawed organization.  As I read through both the essays and the terrible account of Nick Castle’s death, I found myself back on that roller coaster of emotion better known as the Peace Corps experience; I, too, had deeply felt the vast majority of the discontent, disappointment, and concern contained in these articles, and it was powerful to see that volunteers spanning continents and Peace Corps programs had felt the same. One volunteer wrote:

Volunteers like myself cannot do their jobs without support, and as of now, the Peace Corps does not support its volunteers; it is only worried about looking good to Washington so it won’t lose funding. It didn’t matter that I was getting sick and couldn’t do my job. It only mattered that on their forms, I was still at my site and “doing” my job….I don’t feel that I was effective (not from a lack of effort on my part) because I wasn’t cared for in a caring way. No one was looking out for me but myself.*

That last sentence rolled around in my head for days, digging up  memories that I had long put away. I remembered Peace Corps’s refusal to help me buy a new cell phone after I had been forcefully pickpocketed in a crowded bus. Despite my concern that I wouldn’t have enough money to both eat and get a new phone to comply with security rules, Peace Corps claimed “volunteer negligence” and left me to figure out the issue on my own. I also recalled my sitemate who, upon asking the Peace Corps doctor for time to recover from a severe illness before traveling to Loja, was accused of lying to get better travel accommodations and sent on a ten-hour bus ride. As a result, his arms went numb halfway through the trip and volunteers were scrambled together to escort him to the hospital upon arrival at his destination. I also thought of another sitemate’s many trips to the eye “specialist” who delivered an incorrect diagnosis of early-onset glaucoma (although we didn’t know that at the time) and was later deemed to be an idiot by the very Peace Corps doctors who sent her there in the first place. I remembered talking with volunteers about our general distrust for Peace Corps and the shared feeling that nobody from the organization was concerned about our well-being.

In fact, many of the frustrations I’d discussed with fellow volunteers during my time in Ecuador appeared in print, like Peace Corps’s low standards for volunteer success (“A better definition of volunteers’ success”), their inadequate responses to volunteer complaints and emergencies (“If I ever have a daughter, I would recommend that she apply”), and their tendency to blame the volunteer (“The culture tells the volunteer to make it work”). Perhaps the quote that most accurately speaks to my own experience, though, is this one:

For me, the most frustrating part of Peace Corps was its culture. The onus of success seemed to be placed solely on the volunteer. If the volunteer struggles, it’s because she isn’t trying hard enough to adapt.* It’s a culture that ignores factors like: a host family with rigid expectations, a host brother making sexual remarks (or worse), a community in flux, incompetent administrative employees or poor program management. The culture tells the volunteer to make it work, and the volunteer quickly learns how to navigate within these confines.

Gatherings of volunteers often resulted in an outpouring of frustration, negativity and unhappiness. Volunteers coped by drinking too much, lashing out at locals and acting in ways they wouldn’t dare at home.

I’d like to see Peace Corps create a culture that is more supportive of struggling volunteers, especially those who, through no fault of their own, have been placed in unhealthy or unproductive situations. Peace Corps needs to examine how it treats volunteers who don’t have that village-idyll experience, and adapt to the reality of the volunteer’s needs.*

Today, few volunteers have the “village-idyll experience” that Peace Corps has touted in countless ads and PSAs over the years. Like it or not, the world is more interconnected now than ever and the landscape of Peace Corps service has changed. Yet, an outdated approach to supporting volunteers remains. From the beginning of training, Peace Corps tells volunteers that sometimes it’s best if the volunteer just goes home. They remind trainees that Peace Corps is not right for everyone. In fact, they say, going home isn’t a sign of weakness, but rather a sign of strength because it takes courage to face the imperfect reality of your service, recognize your own unmet needs, and give up a goal or dream to prioritize your own well-being. To some degree, that is certainly true. However, “knowing when to go home” often becomes a sneaky way to shame a volunteer into leaving and a convenient excuse to never analyze or fix the situation that led to a volunteer’s discontent in the first place. As a result, Peace Corps remains ill equipped to support committed and serious volunteers who have been placed in volatile situations or matched with disinterested counterparts and communities, often due to Peace Corps’s own lack of research and preparedness. Unfortunately, it is also frequently the most committed volunteers that go home; after all, if you’re only in it for the free time and some good travel stories, why should a lack of work prompt you to cut your time short?

When I was struggling through the last months of my own Peace Corps service, other volunteers and even friends told me to go home. “Why not go home?” they’d say. “You would be happier there.  Is it worth feeling like this just to finish the last few months?” I considered it multiple times, but always rejected the idea. How does leaving remedy Peace Corps’s ineffectual leadership or general lack of structure, expectations, and metrics for success? After leaving, I would become nothing but a stack of paperwork and all of Peace Corps’s faults would remain the same. Instead, I stayed. I worked 40 hours a week at my local high school and in a university English program, and I represented and worked to remedy my fellow volunteers’ concerns as part of Peace Corps’s Volunteer Advisory Council. I left with an excellent understanding of Ecuadorian culture and an even better understanding of Peace Corps’s pitfalls. By the time our group finished, half of our original 62 members had left their service early and nobody batted an eye.

Of course, there are volunteers who do marvelous, impactful work, but too often it is due to luck: the right volunteer being put in the right community with just the right amount of resources and interest at just the right time. In the meantime, other volunteers report one or two “cultural events” and Peace Corps congratulates them on their great success without ever truly measuring if volunteers, as a whole, are effective or stimulating change. (Again, see “A better definition of volunteers’ success” for more on what I mean.)

Yet, for all my discontent, it’s still difficult for me to be honest with others about my views on the organization. Pointing out Peace Corps’s many flaws doesn’t exactly make you popular within the volunteer community. Volunteers tend to romanticize their experience, during and after their service, even if they were mostly miserable or unproductive in country. I can understand the temptation to do so. Peace Corps exposes you to a new culture, exotic sights and truly once-in-a-lifetime experiences. It gives you time to explore who you are and most, if not all, volunteers leave with deep friendships forged with other volunteers over shared vulnerabilities and struggles. My service defines who I am today, and part of me still wants to hold on to that pristine image of Peace Corps I had before going to country. When I share my criticisms of the organization with others, it pains me to see their image of Peace Corps being tainted. But criticizing is not the same as condemning. In fact, I’d say it indicates great caring.

As I said, it’s complicated.

A year after Peace Corps, I am still struggling with a multitude of health and reintegration issues. In one year, I’ve been tested for parasites four times and treated twice. I’ve had four cavities filled, two of which should have been spotted and treated while I was in Peace Corps and are now so large that I may need a root canal. (But guess who gets to pay for it now! I guess Peace Corps “dodged a bullet” on that one.) In between parasite treatments and fillings, I’ve also visited the doctor for a myriad of other health issues, averaging about one appointment a month. My immune system is certainly not what it was pre-Peace Corps. On top of that, Peace Corps dropped my post-service healthcare after 7 months, despite promising 18 months of coverage upon returning home. (Thanks for your service!)  Luckily, I was able to find a job relatively quickly and am now insured, but I know many Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) who were left without care and without a solution after their service had ended. Reverse culture shock and reintegration has also been challenging. I’m still deconstructing some moments of terror from Ecuador, overcoming lingering fears about safety, and slowly recovering my self esteem after working in an environment that told me I was never enough for two years. Sometimes, as I’m piecing together my life in America, I look at the challenges I’m facing now, challenges that are direct results of my service, and I think, “And for what?” Maybe if I had been permitted to work on more meaningful secondary projects with at-risk youth or on HIV prevention, I wouldn’t feel this way. But all this to teach English to some uninterested high school kids?

Yet, in spite of all this, I feel fortunate for my Peace Corps experience. I feel privileged to say that I am one of just 215,000 volunteers that have served in the Peace Corps since its founding over 50 years ago. As the result of my service, I feel confident in the knowledge that I can do the hard things—move to another continent, live in a foreign culture, stand up for myself, set and break limits, and navigate unknown terrain, both literally and figuratively. What I’ve learned about perseverance, perspective, and trusting my gut is immeasurable, and what I’ve gained—fluency in Spanish, Peace Corps friends who are more like family, a better understanding of the world, and a more global point of view and cultural awareness—is priceless. I know that my life as it is now would not have been possible without the experiences I had in the Peace Corps. As one RPCV wrote in her essay:

I can’t speak with 100 percent certainty that any projects that I undertook changed lives. But I am 100 percent certain that my Peace Corps service shaped me into a better global citizen. It equipped me with the important ability to approach a different culture with humility and respect, to listen, and to understand. Furthermore the cultural humility and wide-lens perspective I gained in Uganda will echo through everything I do in my own country. The benefits of Peace Corps service cannot all be measured.

Working on an international team in a high-end corporation. Moving from a town of 9,500 to a city of 3 million. A wonderful cross-cultural relationship. These are things that I never imagined for myself pre-Peace Corps, things that are only possible because of my time in Ecuador.

My service also showed me that I am strong and capable and braver than I ever believed. Peace Corps equipped me with the confidence to tackle the unknown and the ambiguous, to fail and get back up again undefeated, to persevere in the face of systemic or seemingly unchangeable circumstances. I don’t know who or where I would be without the experiences that taught me these valuable lessons. As one RPCV put it:

Returning to America in 2011, I felt empowered. If I could make it in the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere as a single female, then I could tackle anything that the U.S. could throw at me. Upon enrolling in graduate school in 2012, I chose to pursue energy policy as my specialty, feeling comfortable in work environments in major petroleum companies and public policy positions where women are traditionally underrepresented. Peace Corps gave me an internal sense of resilience that was hard-won and will stay with me forever.*

Along with that “internal sense of resilience,” a mostly unshakeable confidence in myself, a web of strong friendships, and two years of unforgettable experiences, I left Ecuador with the knowledge that I did good work in spite of imperfect circumstances. After a daily dose of Catholic guilt, I am immune to the shame and blame that others sometimes use to manipulate, and I am content to roll with the punches (on most occasions). Above all, I am daily grateful.

A year ago, as I wrote my final blog post as a Peace Corps volunteer, I closed with the below quote from Vaclav Havel.

Hope is a state of mind, not of the world…. Hope…is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed…. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.*

A year later, I still feel hopeful. Regardless of whether or not my teachers and students still remember the lessons I taught them, regardless of my struggles in Ecuador, regardless of Peace Corps’s many shortcomings, my service still makes sense. Of this, I am certain.

*Emphasis definitely mine.

When anybody, no matter how old they are, loses a parent, I think it hurts the same as if you were only five years old, you know? I think all of us are always five years old in the presence and absence of our parents.”

–Sherman Alexie, The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Born to Run? Maybe. Love to Run? Yes.

It occurred to me a month ago, while on a short practice run before the 5.3k I planned to run a few days later, that I’ve been running for over a year now. If you had asked me just two years ago if I’d ever envisioned myself as a runner, you’d first get a loud and incredulous laugh and then an emphatic no. For as long as I can remember (before this past year), I’ve hated running. As a child, I stuck to sports that involved little to no running, like softball and volleyball. I absolutely loathed the “fun runs” that our high school P.E. teacher required us to suffer through—for a grade no less!—and no matter how many people talked about that “epic runner’s high” that comes after  pounding the pavement, I could never fathom why anybody would want to put themselves through such misery.

I still deeply hated running when I first heard Christopher McDougall talking on the radio during the long drive between Kansas and my parents’ house in 2009. Deep in the middle of Bible thumping territory, where your selection of radio stations narrows to painfully hopeful Christian music, angry preachers delivering hell fire and damnation, and twangy country ballads, I stumbled upon McDougall talking about his now famous book Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen. I was quickly enveloped in the interview as McDougall described the never-ending list of running injuries that had permanently placed him on the DL list and his amazing journey to discover both the secret of running and the most legendary runners in the world: the Tarahumara Indians. I looked out over the miles of road slipping below my tires, but what I saw before me were the bare feet of the Tarahumara shuffling over the jagged trails of the Copper Canyons, McDougall and his motley crew of superathletes jouncing over dirt roads in a beat up Mexican bus, and the shoe-clad feet of the superathletes lined toe-to-bare toe with the Tarahumara before the epic 50-mile race that serves as the book’s climax.

When I finally sat down this spring to read McDougall’s full account of the ultramarathon that took place between the Tarahumara and his team of world-renowned super runners, the experience was much different than I anticipated. Now a runner myself, I expected to love every page, to be fully convinced and riveted by every magical word. Instead, I found myself alternately enthralled and turned off by McDougall’s story, my reactions as severe and extreme as the Copper Canyons where most of the book is set. In a sentence, Born to Run is a love letter to running riddled with medical studies, running history, and personal anecdotes. Although the tale McDougall weaves is a compelling one, his sometimes movie-esque writing style and inclination for cliff hangers often had me wondering about the authenticity of the book’s happenings. By the time I finished the book, I found that everything I’d read could be safely filed into two categories: things I’d like to believe  and things I know to be absolutely true.

Things I’d Like to Believe

In this first category is a theme that McDougall touches on frequently throughout the book: running makes us better people. While describing the life and career of Joe Vigil, an Olympic running coach, McDougall writes about this philosophy, one which he obviously shares.

“Vigil couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but his gut kept telling him that there was some kind of connection between the capacity to love and the capacity to loverunning. The engineering was certainly the same: both depending on loosening your grip on your own desires, putting aside what you wanted and appreciating what you got, being patient and forgiving and undemanding…. Perhaps all our troubles—all the violence, obesity, illness, depression, and greed we can’t overcome—began when we stopped living as Running People. Deny your nature and it will erupt in some other, uglier way.” 

After reading that, who wouldn’t want to take up running, right? Throughout the book, McDougall uses various case studies and tribal histories to illustrate that we are born-to-be runners trapped in a modern, mostly sedentary culture. While the science is interesting enough, I was never fully convinced by its folklore-like nature or the way that McDougall substitutes hodged podged information for solid facts. I personally found one of McDougall’s subthemes to be far more realistic and believable: running promotes emotional intelligence. Although that exact phrase never appears on the page, it’s a theme that McDougall alludes to over and over again. He tells stories of numerous super athletes who somehow manage to do the undo-able—run hundreds of miles in deadly heat or finish marathons while consuming nothing but beer and pizza along the way, for example—and after each account, he returns to the same theory.

“Suffering is humbling. It pays to know how to get your butt kicked…. Beyond the very extreme of fatigue and distress, we may find amounts of ease and power we never dreamed ourselves to own; sources of strength never taxed at all because we never push through the obstruction.”

As a new runner—after a year of steady practice, I’ve finally allowed myself the title—I’d like to believe that running cultivates a tolerance for pain and an unfailing physical and emotional endurance unseen in non-runners. Running certainly helped me endure my last painful months in Ecuador, where my running story coincidentally began. Despite the altitude and my constant inability to really catch my breath, I didn’t find it to be so miserable anymore. But then again, I knew a little bit more about misery by then. Other runners and writers have certainly ascribed to this idea, too. As Haruki Murakami so elegantly states in his running-themed memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running: “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”

Of course, McDougall’s most controversial claims center around his now infamous assertions that “running shoes may be the most destructive force to ever hit the human foot.”  The author makes a solid and believable case for the benefits of barefoot running. It’s not hard to imagine that major shoe companies would exploit runners by peddling overly-fabricated shoes that actually exacerbate running injuries rather than prevent them. However, McDougall’s sardonic tone paired with the large scale barefoot running movement that was born after the book’s release—a movement that undoubtedly generated a significant sum of money for multiple big name shoe companies—does seem a bit suspect. Unfortunately, those claims along with the hodge podge science I mentioned earlier left me with the nagging suspicion that McDougall’s love for running may not have been his only motivation for writing the book.

Things I Know to Be True

Even as I dismissed some of the author’s more extreme claims, I found myself deeply identifying with the few nuggets of truth gleaming amid the exaggerated facts and heavy-handed cliff hangers. Throughout the book, running is portrayed as an ethereal, peaceful, and even sensuous act.  My favorite description of running comes from one of the female super athletes who describes the feeling she experiences while running as something akin to a romance: 

“But yeah, Ann insisted, running was romantic; and no, of course her friends didn’t get it because they’d never broken through. For them, running was a miserable two miles motivated solely by size 6 jeans: get on the scale, get depressed, get your headphones on, and get it over with. But you can’t muscle through a five-hour run that way; you have to relax into it, like easing your body into a hot bath, until it no longer resists the shock and begins to enjoy it. Relax enough, and your body becomes so familiar with the cradle-rocking rhythm that you almost forget you’re moving. And once you break through to that soft, half-levitating flow, that’s when the moonlight and champagne show up: ‘You have to be in tune with your body, and know when you can push it and when to back off,’ Ann would explain. You have to listen closely to the sound of your own breathing; be aware of how much sweat is beading on your back; make sure you treat yourself to cool water and salty snack and ask yourself, honestly and often, exactly how you feel. What could be more sensual than paying exquisite attention to your own body?” 

Before this book, romantic isn’t the word I would’ve used to describe running, but I, too, have been lulled into that “cradle-rocking rhythm,” so comfortable that your mind wanders to another place and you barely even realize that you’re moving.  When I run, I find myself in a place void of stress and worry, to-do lists and rushed dinner preparations, corporate criticisms and pressures. For me, running is almost like meditating. As another featured super athlete explains:

“’When I’m out on a long run…the only thing in life that matters is finishing the run. For once, my brain isn’t going blehblehbleh all the time. Everything quiets down, and the only thing going on is pure flow. It’s just time and the movement and the motion. That’s what I love—just being a barbarian, running through the woods.’”

Running has gotten me through painful breakups, debilitating pre-interview nervousness, post bad-work-day frustrations, and relentless culture shock anxiety. Even when I fall out of my running routine for a few days (or weeks, let’s be real), I always come back to it, because running quiets down all the extraneous noise in my life and allows me to think about nothing but my own body, the way I feel right in that moment, and the deep calm that comes with just breathing in and out.

Perhaps the brightest nugget of truth is this: “Ask nothing from your running, and you’ll get more than you ever imagined!”

I started running during my last five months in Ecuador. Not to take on the prestigious title of runner, but to train for my four day hike on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, which I had planned to do with my sister in late August. I figured: What better way to prepare for hiking at altitude than to run at altitude? For five months before our expedition, I ran in Loja’s various parks and the city soccer stadium, sometimes passing others—like the Loja police recruits—but, more often, watching others pass me—usually aspiring Olympic speedwalkers. (It’s true. I couldn’t make this up.) I wasn’t running for those size 6 jeans or to improve my already abysmal mile time. I was simply hoping to shield myself against altitude sickness and that paralyzing feeling of desperation that comes when you are in the middle of nowhere and feel like you just can’t take one more step. I had no expectations for my running other than to simply go out and do it, even if that meant taking walking breaks between sprints.  Five months later, I spent four glorious days on the Inca Trail with my sister, and neither of us got altitude sickness. 

To everyone’s surprise, including my own, I continued running even after moving back home to the States. It was still humid and miserable in early September, but my love for running somehow grew and grew. As McDougall said, I asked nothing from my running, and yet I got so much in return: an outlet for stress, patience with myself and others, self-discipline that I never knew I had, the ability to let go of my perfectionism and be proud of both my long and small runs, and more than anything, joy in simply stretching my legs and pushing forward.

Adventures in Reading or the Perils of Reading on Public Transportation

Before this year’s personal reading challenge, I never considered reading on public transit a particularly perilous action. I’ve certainly done more perilous things on the train, like force myself through the inch gap between the train doors when they refused to open or pile into an already crowded train car where personal space is nonexistent and oxygen is limited. However, I’ve found that reading on the train can lead to any number of awkward, embarrassing, confusing, or otherwise perilous situations. Before bringing your most recent literary obsession on the bus or train, ask yourself if you are willing to experience one or all of the following risky happenings:

Falling on people

It never fails. You’re standing on the train during the morning rush hour, trying to get to the end of that last, suspenseful chapter before work, and the minute you reach down to turn the page, the train jerks around the corner. That’s right. One minute you’re flipping to the next exciting sentence and the next you’re reeling backwards onto some poor, unsuspecting phone gazer. This is the life of a public reader.

In the course of 5 months, I’ve fallen on three people and kicked another. (For some reason, when I’m falling, my first instinct is to kick out my leg in an attempt to steady myself and regain my balance. Thus far, that strategy has failed 100% of the time.)

This is a warning for book lovers and the non-readers who stand around them: pay attention. It will happen when you least expect it.

Missing your stop

More than once I’ve been burning through the pages, so caught up in the most gripping part of my book that I forget that I’m even on the train. Believe me, that’s generally a good thing. Or at least it is until I look up, realize I’ve gone two stops too far, and I’m now officially twenty minutes late for work or brunch with friends or a doctor’s appointment. On the bright side, though, you can continue reading while you wait for the train that will take you two stops in the opposite direction.

Crying in public

Books make me feel things. Really deep, emotional things. Unfortunately, when the majority of your reading occurs during your commute to and from work, you end up feeling really deep, emotional things while standing shoulder to shoulder with complete strangers.  Last week, my eyes began to well up with tears as I read one of the most emotional parts of Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. I tried to play it cool, casually dabbing at the corner of my eye as if it were merely a speck of dust or an eyelash that was causing it to water. When I looked across the train, though, I found a guy staring back at me with a concerned look on his face.

Busted.

I happened to be on an Amtrak train when I finished The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. I didn’t even bother playing it cool then. Instead, I flipped the book shut, looked out the window, and just let the tears come down while the guy next to me desperately tried not to notice.

Being Judged

When you read on public transportation, you invite everyone sitting around you to judge you simply based on the title of the book you happen to be holding. This is more a warning for everyone else, since I happen to have excellent taste in literature. Yeah, I see you, Fifty Shades of Grey reader. I’m judging you so hard. 

Getting Caught Awkwardly Staring While Trying to See What Someone Else is Reading (or Admiring the Reader)

If you read on public transit, it’s likely that you’re interested in seeing what others are reading on public transit. Or perhaps you can’t take your eyes off the person reading the book. Really, what’s more attractive than a good looking guy or girl reading a good book? Admiring a book or its reader is all fine and dandy until you get caught staring. Of course, it might not be so awkward if you are social enough to pull off a quick one-liner, like, “Is that a good book?” or “I see you’re reading X author. Do you like her stuff?”  Me? I just quickly look away and pretend that it never happened.

Moral of the story: Reading on public transportation is risky business and you never know when danger could befall you. Stay safe out there, fellow readers.

Making Sense of Memory (Loss)

During my two-year stint in the Peace Corps, I developed a memory problem, or so it seemed when upon returning home I couldn’t remember how to get to my best friend’s house despite the fact that I could practically drive the route in my sleep before moving to Ecuador. “Did you really use your GPS to get here?” my friend asked when I confessed my inability to recall the route, her tone simultaneously incredulous and teasing.

It wasn’t just that I couldn’t remember how to get to her house; I couldn’t seem to remember how to get anywhere. For weeks after returning home, I would blindly turn onto a road, not knowing exactly where it led but sensing that it would somehow get me where I needed to go. I’d gaze with no recognition at houses and farms as I passed by on a narrow back road, assuming I would instinctively know where to turn when I got there. (Luckily, this was often true, although it gave me the distinct sensation of searching for the doorway in a pitch black room, my sight reduced to only what I could see through the narrow beam of my flashlight.) Once, I zoned out while driving, as one is prone to do when surrounded by miles and miles of corn fields, and when coming back to the present moment, I couldn’t remember where I was.  Rolling along at 60 miles per hour, I squeezed my fingers a bit tighter around the steering wheel and kept driving until a landmark reminded me of my current location and my future destination. It was startling, to say the least.

In addition to general directions, I forgot the names of former classmates (even those with whom I spent a great deal of time), certain English words and phrases like “flight attendant” and “accomplish” and “take advantage,” where to find things in my childhood home, what 60 miles per hour feels like on flat land, and how to make small talk in English. I was especially concerned to find that, in addition to these relatively minor details, I had apparently forgotten memorable moments that my friends could still recount with great clarity.  “Remember when…” they’d start and I’d shuffle through my memories looking for remnants of such events, usually finding nothing but endless darkness. As they continued to describe such and such trip or concert or gathering, a certain detail would sometimes jog my memory and it would all come rushing back to me in a great flood of sights and sounds, like a sudden revelation. But more often than not, I would find myself listening to these memories, which explicitly featured me, as if I had never been there at all. More and more, I had the sensation of living outside of myself. This is how it must feel to have amnesia, I would think. Hearing someone describe yourself to yourself as if you are a character in a story you’ve never heard.  More often, my reaction consisted of a kind of detached hysteria.  I’m losing it, I would think. This is how my spiral into total memory loss begins.

Memory loss is a very real and present problem in my family. There are four people in my family with neurodegenarative diseases, two of which have suffered memory impairment of varying severity. The idea of legitimately losing my memory terrifies me—who are you if not a compilation of your memories?—and as such, it’s something I actively worry about. So I decided to “reconnect” with my former self, even though I wasn’t quite sure what that should entail; I drove past my childhood home, my high school, and my old hangouts. I listened keenly to my friends tell stories of memorable moments from high school, college, and graduate school. I looked at pictures and read old emails I had absentmindedly filed away before and during Peace Corps. And somewhere along the way I also picked up Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein.

You’ve likely heard of Joshua Foer before. He is one third of the famous Foer trio, all of whom are known for their practically prodigious literary and  journalistic accomplishments. He also won the U.S.A. Memory Championship in 2006, an experience that serves as the basis for his hugely successful first book. I was in Ecuador when Moonwalking with Einstein hit the shelves; at a time when I was paying by the minute at a local internet cafe and therefore more likely to be frantically writing emails or uploading blog posts than perusing U.S. new sources, Moonwalking with Einstein was so widely featured, critiqued, and discussed in U.S. publications that even I took notice of it. So it’s no surprise that two weeks into my reading challenge I found myself swiping through a Kindle edition of Foer’s book as my morning train bumbled towards downtown.

From the beginning, I was completely enthralled by Foer’s book, which opens on the final round of one of the world’s biggest memory competitions.  Much to his surprise and everyone else’s, Foer finds himself competing alongside dedicated “memory athletes” to claim the U.S. title. In the midst of vivid descriptions of his eccentric competitors, the tense competition that brings them all together, and an extended list of things the author regularly forgot previous to his memory training, Foer lays out his overarching reason for writing the book: 

I had once read that the average person squanders about forty days a year compensating for things he or she has forgotten…. Every day there seems to be more to remember…. With a memory like [that of a mental athlete], I imagined, life would be qualitatively different—and better.

I nodded as I dragged my finger across my Kindle screen, imagining how much better life would be if I could remember anything in the gray period that extends past the moment I landed in Ecuador three years ago.  

Using the U.S.A. Memory Championship and his personal memory training as the book’s frame, Foer discusses the brain’s many mysterious properties, how memories are made and then haphazardly stored away, the varied and powerful capabilities of our own minds, and why sometimes it is necessary to forget. After reading the first couple chapters, I already had great insight into my own memory loss.  As Foer explains, memories are composed of neurological connections, that is the synaptic links that are formed between one neuron and another. We also remember things by placing them in a web of other memories, so the more often we recall a memory, the more concrete and stable those synaptic connections between memories become.  According to Foer,

The nonlinear associative nature of our brains makes it impossible for us to consciously search our memories in an orderly way. A memory only pops directly into consciousness if it is cued by some other thought or perception–some other node in the nearly limitless interconnected web. So when a memory goes missing or a name gets caught on the tip of the tongue, hunting down can be frustrating and often futile.” But there is hope: “Each time we think about a memory, we integrate it more deeply into our web of other memories, and therefore make it more stable and less likely to be dislodged.

No wonder I can’t seem to remember much of my pre-Peace Corps life, I thought. The web of neurons comprising my pre-Peace Corps memories hadn’t been activated much before I moved home. How often during my Peace Corps service had I thought about “that one time sophomore year” when my friend dressed up as the Pope and invaded my dorm room? Or the touring Broadway show I saw with my mom before leaving the country? Or those hot, sticky summers during high school when I worked the friers at my small-town burger joint? There were certainly no details or points of recognition in Ecuador to prompt me to do so. Which also made me wonder: how long will it be before I forget the finer moments of my Ecuadorian life, now that there are very few details or environmental cues to trigger my memories of them?

As I sped through the book, I was continually surprised by the ways in which Foer’s research and observations touched my life. He tells the story of EP, an older man who, like my grandmother, can’t make new memories or remember the past experiences that shaped him, but somehow still maintains his genial personality and sense of self. Foer also describes the visual memory techniques he laboriously studied for months, revealing how said techniques not only relate to creativity but have the capacity to make us more creative. As I flipped from page to page, I suddenly found myself contemplating the many ways that learning these memory techniques could, as Foer said, improve the quality of my life.

Perhaps most interesting was Foer’s explanation of chronological landmarks and how they shape the way we perceive our own lives. Foer writes,

Our lives are structured by our memories of events. Event X happened just before the big Paris vacation. I was doing Y in the first summer after I learned to drive. Z happened the weekend after I landed my first job. We remember events by positioning them in time relative to other events.

As I examined my memories of Ecuador and my life before, I found that it was true; my strongest memories are always positioned in relation to another monumental occurrence. Before embarking on my great Peace Corps adventures, for example, my family and I vacationed in Florida; my memories of the hot sand, the bike ride I took with my sister and mother on a blinding sunny day, the cool, hotel air conditioning that enveloped my tired and sunburnt body afterwards are unparalleled by other vacation memories. By creating chronological landmarks, that is noteworthy memories usually comprised of major life moments—a big move, an engagement or a breakup, your first day at your “big boy” job, for example—we create the perception of an elongated life. As Foer says,

Monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it….Creating new memories stretches out psychological time, and lengthens our perception of our lives.

Looking back, my two years of Peace Corps certainly do seem quite long, perhaps because every day I was doing something new and novel: learning more about Ecuadorian culture, traveling to a new, exotic (to me) locale, trying new foods, or facing challenges I had never even conceived of before.

By the time I finished Foer’s book, I had a whole new perspective on my life then and now. I reflect more on what I’ve learned in my first four months at my new job, I purposely create  novel experiences to break up my day to day, and I relive good (and sometimes even bad) memories in an effort to cement them in my mind.  After all, who doesn’t want a life that feels longer and more fully lived, even if we are simply changing our perception rather than adding extra years? 

On a final note: although scientists can document and track the firing of neurons through various brain scans, we still have no scientific evidence of memory. In other words, scientists have never been able to capture an image of memory on scans.  Have you ever thought about what a memory looks like? I certainly hadn’t, but I have on many occasions since then, which is perhaps evidence that Moonwalking with Einstein is nothing if not mind-blowing (corny pun intended). 

Intrigued? Check out Foer’s TED talk!

Do you have a great book recommendation? Feel free to leave it in the comments section!