As I sit here typing this note to you, I’m feeling a little tearful, not out of sadness but simply out of wonder for how life works. At 62 years old, I still find myself amazed at the turns life takes, the unanticipated twists that occur out of simple conversations and sheer happenstance. It’s remarkable how seeds are planted in our lives and at times they can seem withered, dried up, and gone, but in an instant the unexpected buds appear and we see growth, we see newness.
I remember a day many years ago when I was a chubby, addicted-to-giggling ten year old living in the heart of Austin, Texas and attending Robert E. Lee Elementary School just a few blocks from my house, near Eastwoods Park. At school, a big announcement was made that President John F. Kennedy had formed the Peace Corps. I remember watching his announcement on the television and seeing the reaction of my family. It was an exciting time in our nation. Even at the age of ten, I realized the emotions we were all feeling as we watched our young new president, so full of hope and inspiration. We were looking to a new leader for our country. And I remember this one word he spoke often and wrote about, and it has remained with me through a lifetime – “courage” – courage to step forward and do the next thing, set the next goal, make the next plan, help the next person.
President Kennedy and his family were admired and loved by many, but more importantly, he had an intellect and an international vision for world peace, an end to poverty, and an interchange among the nations. (No matter what your political persuasion or what your personal judgement is about our leaders and their strengths and weaknesses, there is no denying the good in seeking peace, an end to poverty, and the fortification of international relations).
In class, our teacher showed us photos of groups of people in various countries and we talked about how it would feel to live among them. I swooned. I wanted that. I walked home and went straight to mother, telling her that I’d someday like to sit among a group of women in a foreign country, speak their language, cook and eat together, and discuss our lives, our hopes and dreams. I envisioned myself wearing the same traditional clothing they were wearing, holding babies, laughing together, crying together and sharing our lives.
Years later my grown children and I were discussing my son-in-law’s time in Africa, where he served in the Peace Corps. We loved hearing his stories about that experience. I mentioned to them the dream I had a little more than fifty years ago and within moments I began realizing that the conversation had changed and we were talking about me – and the Peace Corps – and the real possibility. My children have done this before many times and those chats have incredibly and on many occasions brought forth life-changing experiences. My new son-in-law is cut from the same cloth and with my two, they now make up a powerful threesome of initiative-in-action. There they were, lounging on the sofa and chairs in their uniforms of choice: plaid flannel pajama pants, flipflops and tshirts. As they are apt to do, they were throwing all caution aside in one grand sweep, and describing an exciting idea, sending thoughts across the living room like an afternoon game of badminton, easily flitting the birdie to each other with each progressive comment, discussing the topic with a calm and confident attitude that says “This will work — All things are possible.” It is something they do often and it always pleases me to no end. What a great way to view life! The memories came flooding back to me of that day in 1961 and I began to see myself living out the dream.
At the powerful, grinning nudges of my three children, I applied. Then I waited. Periodically I’d receive a message from the Peace Corps asking for answers to various questions regarding my finances, my health, my language skills. Eventually those messages came more frequently and once again I saw myself in the midst of something big happening right before my eyes. They were considering me for a post somewhere in a spanish speaking country! Really? Really. A spanish-speaking country. Latin America. South. How far south? But, but, but, what if my daughter and son-in-law have a baby, what if my son gets engaged? Oh mother, are you really going to deny yourself this incredible opportunity based on the what-ifs of life? Well, no. You’ve got a point. I suppose not.
Here I am, sitting in my sweet little casita in the middle of Paraguay, South America on the 53rd anniversary of the day – March 1, 1961 – when President Kennedy issued the executive order to establish the Peace Corps. My house is painted multiple bright colors inside and out….turquoise, purple, goldenrod yellow and cranberry. The streets are cobblestone. Eucalyptus trees with their blonde, smooth bark, provide a luscious scent. Enormous mango trees drop dozens of ripe fruit onto my patio, providing an easy midday snack. Everything I want to communicate and every conversation I have is in spanish. Around me I hear smatterings of an indigenous tribal language called guarani, in the form of what’s called jopara, a mix of guarani and spanish. I struggle to speak it as I try one syllable with its nasal sound and another syllable with its guttural sound. I don’t drink a glass of iced tea, I drink terreré out of a guampa, using a bombillia as my straw. My current schedule, as well as plans for the coming months, consist of classes in topics I love, for children and adolescents. Self-esteem and leadership, character-building activities, english, violin, art, and another topic that speaks so clearly to me called “Construye Tus Sueños” which means Build Your Dreams. Teaching that class seems just the right thing to do, considering.
President Kennedy’s constant message on courage has stayed with me all these years. I have certainly thought about it often and written about it frequently. I gave a lesson in my site, sharing my thoughts about courage with the youth of my community. I told them of my strong belief that we need only to muster the courage for the first step. That’s all. Just gather yourself up to take that initial, courageous first step. With that, you have a great chance of reaching your goal, following your dream. Each step we take provides its own impetus for the next step, and the next. Before you know, you may find yourself where you’ve always wanted to be.