We carried flags for Moldova and Nepal in Philadelphia’s big Independence Day parade. There was a “small problem” with Champa’s flag. Video also online at YouTube.
We’re celebrating two anniversaries this month: two years since I left my job at Duke and one year since Champa and I arrived in Moldova to serve as Peace Corps Volunteers.
As a new book makes clear, the “not exactly retired” path we’ve charted for ourselves is not exactly for everyone. Many people want to be retired in a traditional sense — playing golf, gardening or relaxing in other ways. Others seek to remain connected to their previous workplace or profession, or to search for new meaning in their life. Some end up watching too much television or getting depressed.
In Too Young to Be Old: Love, Learn, Work, and Play as You Age, sociologist Nancy K. Schlossberg explores the different paths people follow. She describes the six most common routes as “continuers,” “adventurers,” easy gliders,” “involved spectators,” “searchers” and “retreaters.”
Since we made the leap, traveling across the United States and Nepal and then joining the Peace Corps, Champa and I have mostly been “adventurers.” Schlossberg describes this route as “an opportunity to pursue an unrealized dream or try something new.” In my case, there’s also been an element of “continuer,” since I’ve remained active in communications, albeit in a very different way from when I was running a university communications office.
Even though I was more than ready for the transition, it took time to adjust to my new life, just as my sister Nancy had warned me. (She is the author of Second-Act Careers, which I recommend highly.) I had trouble letting go of my professional identity, which I continued to highlight on my LinkedIn profile for several months. Only later did I change it to emphasize my role as a blogger and, later, as a Peace Corps volunteer.
Taking extended trips across the United States and Nepal helped loosen my grip. Serving in the Peace Corps then provided me with a new identity and a well-established mission and structure to serve others.
In one year, though, I will finish Peace Corps and again face the challenge of defining “who am I?” for both myself and others who know me, together with Champa. I will also need to reaffirm my identities within my family and my community back home. It’s a process that will probably never end.
Champa and I know how lucky we are to have these opportunities, even though we really miss our family and are counting the minutes until we see them in a few weeks for a brief vacation.
Schlossberg’s book reminds me how other members of my generation will have their own retirement journeys, which may be very different from our own yet equally valid and compelling. All of us entering this phase of our lives share the challenge of finding the right blend of identity, relationships and purpose to fit our circumstances.
With two years and many miles now behind us, I now recognize our most important choice so far to have been choice itself, to act instead of drifting. What we actually chose is not everyone’s cup of tea (or even Moldovan wine), to be sure, but it’s worked for us. We all face life transitions sooner or later and can either resist or embrace them, however much our destinations and routes may diverge.
I welcome comments about your own dreams and journey, regardless of your age.
A fun post that I’m sharing here for readers not connected with me on Facebook:
Top photo by Beni Thelmia.
This is my 100th post on Not Exactly Retired, which has attracted more than 7,500 visitors since it began in mid-2015. I’ll be celebrating the milestone with a special series about older volunteers in the Peace Corps, starting with my next post.
First, though, especially during this holiday season, I want to pause to tell all of you how much I love producing this blog and appreciate all of you who read it.
Before Champa and I began our journey 18 months ago, I spent a career doing communications for nonprofit organizations, much of it ghost-writing articles and speeches for others. For four decades, I largely put my own writing aside.
Only after I started Not Exactly Retired did I realize how much I’d missed speaking in my own voice.
Now I get to report first-hand on issues such as immigration or the devastating 2015 earthquake in Nepal. I can be silly, as with the adventures of our traveling gnome. I can produce videos one week and share recipes the next. Some posts get picked up elsewhere and reach national audiences.
What I’ve enjoyed most is sharing the incredible experiences Champa and I have had since we walked away from our conventional American lives to pursue new lives of adventure and service, most recently as Peace Corps volunteers in eastern Europe. I treasure the many messages I’ve received and posts I’ve seen from people saying the blog is inspiring them to consider changes in their own lives.
I’ve always been a quick writer, so I can produce the blog while remaining active with everything else I am privileged to be doing as a Peace Corps volunteer. Things go even faster because the layers of my institutional vetting process now work as follows:
Me talking to myself: “So, David, do you approve this?”
Me answering myself: “Yes.”
Most blogs fail. A 2009 New York Times article cited a Technorati survey saying 95 percent of blogs were “essentially abandoned, left to lie fallow on the Web, where they become public remnants of a dream — or at least an ambition — unfulfilled.”
Not Exacly Retired is going strong thanks to all of you who read it, offer comments and send encouragement. I hope you enjoy the upcoming series and everything that follows. If you have a friend or relative who is pondering how to live the second half of their lives, or who just has a sense of adventure, I encourage you to share Not Exactly Retired with them, too. Perhaps they will find it useful, or at least entertaining.
As always, I recommend you subscribe directly to the blog. If you’re just linking to it from Facebook, you’re missing out on some of the best stuff.
I also welcome your comments.
And now, on to the series and whatever comes after that. I don’t know about you, but I’m not exactly finished yet.
Just a few days before the stunning U.S. election, I received a message out of the blue that confirmed something Peace Corps told us during our training: You never know whose life you may touch, no matter what happens in the wider world.
The message came from Signor Rana, one of my students when I taught English at a school near Kathmandu as a Peace Corps volunteer four decades ago, long before I began serving again in Moldova.
It came to me on Facebook: “Hi, are you the same David Jarmul who was peace corp volunteer back in late 70 in Nepal? Remember Lab times in lab school? I was one of your student? I was looking for you since 1988.”
Of course I remembered the Lab Times, the wall newspaper I started at the school, but I didn’t remember Signor — one of several hundred students I had there and in Champa’s village, Ilam. Still, I wrote him back, and he responded quickly.
“Wow, I was looking for you since I came to US as a student back in 1989,” he replied, describing how he is now married, living in Maryland and working as a software engineer for the federal government.
“You used to tell a story of America and show us moon landing documentary and made me participate in play Snow White. That made me dream of America and came here. You do plant a seed on a boy who was 10 years old. Thanks for helping me. Please let me know when you visiting back to US.”
Coincidentally, I’d responded just a few days earlier to another unexpected message, this one from Australia. It was from the son of a friend of mine from Ilam.
Perhaps there were others, too. I don’t really know. Neither do most other Peace Corps volunteers who completed their service years ago.
Signor’s timing could hardly have been more auspicious. His was like a message in a bottle, washing ashore just when I needed to discover it.
It reminded me that no matter what happens in politics, we all have the power to make a difference in some lives, even if our impact is not revealed until years later, if ever. That remains true today for the nearly 7,000 other Peace Corps volunteers and trainees serving around the world, in more than 60 countries. As it has for more than 50 years, the Peace Corps touches lives every day, with strong bipartisan support from Republicans and Democrats alike.
That’s a fact worth treasuring at a moment when our country is struggling to heal after a bitter presidential campaign. Indeed, perhaps some of the lives that need touching right now are Americans who feel uncertain about the future.
I don’t mean the election’s results don’t matter. They do, profoundly, and I will be watching what happens along with everyone else. But as someone who is old enough to have lived through presidents from both parties who did both good and bad things, I choose to take the counsel of our current leader: The sun will still rise tomorrow. We can still find meaning in our own lives. We can still make the world a better place.
No matter whether we are abroad or back home, in the Peace Corps or among our neighbors, regardless of politics, we can all try to touch lives or, as Signor put it, to plant seeds.
Sometimes they will bloom. You never know.
Can you guess what question I’m asked most often in Moldova, especially by other Americans?
It’s this: How have I found it different being a Peace Corps volunteer now compared to when I served in Nepal four decades ago?
My short answer is that the experience feels very familiar. As before, I’ve left my family and America to serve people in another country, learning their language and sharing their daily lives.
But serving in Moldova has also been very different from my stint in Nepal in the late 1970s. Here are six of the biggest changes I’ve seen:
- I am much more connected to the outside world. I have a smart phone, a laptop and a Kindle, all linked to wifi. I talk regularly with my family. I am following the U.S. election campaign and other news. I interact online with my Moldovan partners and Peace Corps colleagues. In contrast, when I served in Nepal I did not call home even once. The Internet did not exist. I was very alone.
- Safety and security have become a much bigger deal. Neither terrorism nor street crime are serious problems in Moldova, yet our training was filled with security briefings. We were given detailed emergency action plans. I can’t leave my post overnight without notifying the staff. I can’t even enter the Peace Corps office without passing through a locked gate, a guard and a metal detector. In Nepal, I used to ride my bicycle past a front gate nominally staffed by a guard, then strolled inside.
- The infrastructure is more elaborate. My desk is piled with Romanian language workbooks, brochures on Moldovan culture, a “volunteerism action guide” and more. I have dozens more resources on a thumb drive Peace Corps gave me, not to mention the documents we received before we arrived here. There are detailed protocols for everything from paying a language tutor to taking a trip. In Nepal, our training was also excellent, but we had fewer resources and a lot less red tape.
- I’m in a different country. Moldova is in eastern Europe, with an agricultural economy best known for wine. Its population is almost entirely white and Orthodox Christian. Nepal is in the Himalayas and mainly Hindu, along with Buddhists, Christians and Muslims. Both countries have delicious food, interesting people and fascinating customs, but they are as different as can be, except for the fact they are both landlocked — Moldova between Romania and Ukraine, Nepal between India and China. Inevitably, the Peace Corps experience is different, too.
- The world has changed over the past four decades. When I served in Nepal, the country was ruled by a king, who had not yet been murdered by his son. Now it’s a struggling democracy. The United States was still in a Cold War with the Soviet Union, which included Moldova. China was poor. Personal computers were new. Gay people could not get married. The idea of an African American or woman president back home was almost unimaginable. After four decades, the world is a different place. Peace Corps has evolved with it, such as by launching programs to combat HIV/AIDS or to “let girls learn.”
- I have changed. I saved this one for last because it’s the variable that affects everything else. When I joined the Peace Corps in Nepal, I was two years out of college, single and eager to save the world. Now I am a father and grandfather, serving with my wife of 37 years, who I met in Nepal. I am older and hopefully a bit wiser. In any case, I’m in a different place in my life, and not only geographically.
So, yes, I can now watch YouTube videos instead of fiddling with a shortwave radio to find a signal from the BBC or the Voice of America. But at least for me, Peace Corps still feels like “the toughest job you’ll ever love,” with the same beating heart. Once again, I’m working alongside a wonderful group of Americans who have taken a break from their lives to serve others and represent our country. Once again, I feel privileged to be among them.
Who knows? Perhaps there’s even a new form I’m supposed to fill out to confirm this.
In the fall of 2015, as chronicled earlier in this blog, Champa and I took an extended trip to Nepal. We visited her home town of Ilam and a small village, Samalbung, and spent time in the Kathmandu Valley. During the second half of the trip we welcomed eight members of our American family for an unforgettable tour, highlighted by the two families coming together. This video has the highlights.