August 20, 2013
“So, ask yourself: What can you do right now to see the other side of change, in spite of the anxiety?” -Sumitha Bhandarkar
Reframing is perhaps one of the most critical skills I have honed in the year since arriving in PY. I’m not talking about reframing doorways or watercolors for the wall; I’m referring to perspective, the situation that isn’t going as planned and will drive you crazy if you don’t reframe into something more tolerable, if you don’t shift your perspective toward the positive, if you don’t look for the lesson it’s trying to teach; it’s the moment that offers its lesson cleverly wrapped as frustration, a set back, or a plan gone awry.
This past week I had two excellent opportunities to further develop this practice: a late bus and doing business at the bank. My usual excursions into the next town are a casual affair requiring a minimum half day of my time due to bus schedules. I am only hurried to ensure I reach the bus terminal on time but, once there, it’s pretty tranquilo. On this day, I was meeting a brand new volunteer who had just moved to town and had promised him lunch, English conversation, and a tour of the town to get him grounded. Today, I had no time to spare; I had scheduled every available moment intown. Today, the bus was an unprecedented 40 minutes late. Really? Today of all days? Ok, I get it: a ‘reframing’ opportunity right here. Attitude adjustment time and asking myself how I could look at this situation differently. First, I reminded myself that it would all be ok in the end, regardless of the time we had or didn’t. We weren’t negotiating a hostage situation; it was lunch. Then I decided to make better use of all this extra time available to me. I began bargaining with my plan, seeing what could be condensed or eliminated once I got to town. I began calculating costs for my next vacation. I practiced guaraní vocabulary using the various objects within sight. Magically, the time passed much more quickly. Once intown I rushed to the bank on the way to meeting the new volunteer, thinking “This will just take a minute” and feigned patience while waiting my turn in line. When it was my turn to step to the counter, another bank employee appeared at the teller with an urgent project that needed his attention immediately and seemed to take forever. REALLY? Do you really need to count all that money now? This can’t wait until the line has cleared? I don’t have time to wait, folks! Hence began the mental gymnastics to turn my impatient thoughts into something more productive. I listened to my inner ramblings from outside myself and recognized this as yet another ‘reframing’ opportunity, muttering under my breath that there’s probably something to be learned here somewhere but what the hell is the damn lesson this time???? Surely, haven’t I already learned it?? Clearly, the universe felt I needed more practice and this was it’s reminder to just cool my jets, Chickie.
Admittedly, things weren’t as dire as they felt in my haste… yes, I’d wanted to be ON TIME, and I may or may not have been keeping someone waiting but really, this wasn’t life or death; it’s a mere blink in the collective moments of my life … and I knew I’d probably laugh about it in a few hours (which I did, exactly 15 minutes later). Getting internally impatient or externally huffy does no one any good. Second, perhaps I should have checked my ego at the airport. Third, it gave me time to really be present, to look around the bank and take in the number of guards with their M16s who look so unintimidating drinking terere; to wonder how long the teller has worked here and if those worry lines are from his job, a difficult childhood, concentration, a struggling family member, or …?; to wonder about the life stories of the others in line around me. Simply: A good reminder that situations, and we, are not as important as we think, reframing is always possible and a change in perspective usually makes for a much happier you. And, yes, it all worked out just fine in the end.
Speaking of errands and money, I was chatting with a fellow volunteer recently about how our purchasing decisions here in PY are strongly influenced by our ability to get the purchase home. This usually means carrying it in a backpack or striking gold by finding a friend to haul it in a vehicle (rare but happens). Between us, 99.9% of purchases arrive home on our backs. And, yes, this makes for one of the most effective money-saving ideas I’ve ever used. I would have purchased MANY more things if I could have tossed them into a vehicle. Instead, I’m constantly asking myself: How much do I REALLY need that? How much does it weigh? Do I REALLY want to carry it? Is there room in the backpack after groceries? One yogurt or two? Wine, a new sweater, OR a week of veggies and fruit? The large economy-price spaghetti sauce or the smaller, lighter, more expensive box? For refrigerated items we must also ask ‘How hot is it today and can I get it home without it spoiling?’ We got to wondering – and laughing – how our lives back in the States would be different if we had to use the same criteria for making purchases and getting them home.
That said, hauling a heavy pack several kilometers home has its merits. It invites you to be present, to feel the weight of your new belongings on your body and then, out of discomfort, to reframe. It invites you to shift your focus to your surroundings and the opportunity to revel in the swirl of scents, sights and sounds filling the air. Mangoes, guavas, limes, oranges, and more are blossoming right now and the bees are so boisterous in their ecstasy over the feast you hear them before you see them. You notice birds bantering, how strikingly blue the sky is and how desiccated the soil has become since the last rain. You arrive home with your supplies and a satisfaction not unlike a long season of hard work in the garden that finally generates a great harvest.
Trash is an ongoing issue here. There is no cohesive waste management system in PY and none at all where I live. There is no truck that comes by to conveniently take your discarded material to the landfill. There are few recycling programs. With every day and every purchase we are forced to consider our trash, its lifespan, its final resting place and its impact on the environment. A plastic pouch vs plastic jar vs glass jar? What will we DO with this box/plastic/soda or wine bottle/wrapper/paper/metal chair/tire when it has run its course and usefulness? What can be reused, upcycled, used for storage, etc? Ethical and moral dilemmas abound. Most Paraguayans burn their trash in the backyard. What doesn’t burn gets thrown in a pile to the side. It gets us PCVs to thinking about home and the convenience of our own systems but also the idea of how we might make different decisions and live very differently if we, too, were forced to turn our backyards into our own personal landfills, in proximity to your wells and drinking water. We are so shielded from this reality in the states that we can continue to live our destructive lives and habits without having to consider the consequences each day. Many of us don’t even know when and where we are being destructive. Many PCVs burn their bathroom trash and bury the rest. But what happens when you go on vacation and your regularly scheduled trash-burning-in-the-shed is paused? Giant, super-stinger wasps move in. Then when you finally generate some smoke again, they fall from the ceiling and land in your hair. No harm done this time but…ick. Tis the season for these.
And speaking of critters…this week the spiders are back: I found two floating in coffee mugs, one making a nest in a folded shirt on the shelf, and another sitting steathily above my mosquito net over the bed. Tiny frogs jump out from behind the silverware canister, scaring the daylights out of me. They are harmless but I reached for a fork, not a frog. Piglets try to raid my porch and are non-plussed as I use my water-bottle-turned-squirt-gun to shoo them away. Blackflies have dissipated but mosquitos are loving the now-warmer weather, as am I.
Despite living next door to Canada all my life, I do not like the cold. I’m a wimp. Before moving to PY, I was assured winters here were mild with temps rarely low enough to produce a frost. They lied. Or their tolerance of cold is something akin to Artic-loving. My bones are not made for that. I’m a tropical gal and I love the heat. The weeks before and after my vacation in early August brought several frosts and one morning of freezing rain. Even the things in our refrigerators were frozen. Because homes here are not insulated nor do they contain a heating system, temps inside one’s house tend to be the same as outside, without the wind chill. I feel for those who must economize their trips to their outdoor bathrooms and force their bladders to greater holding capacity. I sequestered myself in my house in full winter regalia: boots, wool socks and a complete accompaniment of warm clothes. I slept fully dressed under four blankets with my hat on. I ran my tiny oven with the door open to substitute as a furnace, warmed bricks in it for radiant heat later, and drank liters of hot water. My hot water bottle took on god-like status. I did innumerable squats and planks to generate heat from within. I tried to reframe (at least I’m getting exercise out of this!) I tried to be present (yes, I can see my breath inside and practice making rings with it in the air; I’m very present to how numb my toes and fingers are!) The upside to long, cold winter days is there’s more time for reading. Whether or not you are a foodie, if you’ve never read “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” by Barbara Kingsolver I highly recommend it!
Now that we’re flirting with warmer temps, I’m feeling human again. I dare venture out to visit my neighbors whom I have missed. I’m elated in having to use sunscreen and a wide-brimmed hat once again and ever more grateful for being the rare volunteer with running water and a hot indoor shower. After being cooped up, I’m ready to get out in the sunshine and work!