We’re sleeping in these days, both looking for work. I’ve just finished adjuncting at a community college in Chicago Heights, teaching two late-start courses—last chances for students of shaky commitment and doubtful finances to enroll in their education like they’re making a desperation shot at the buzzer. The Comp 1 class that started with eighteen students ended with thirteen, seven of whom failed. It was a sad and frustrating initiation into teaching in American higher ed., but I’m still sending cover letters to more community colleges, also independent high schools, museums, and non-profits. Stas has a temporary part-time job. He meets exchange students from former Soviet Union countries at O’Hare Airport and gets them onto the flights that will take them home after a year in the U.S. that has probably changed them forever. A couple months ago, Stas worked in a factory, pressing sheet metal into car parts. His first week, he got a nasty cut on his hand, but for most of the factory’s workers—mainly Spanish-speaking immigrants—cuts were a banal injury, and over lunch they told him gruesome stories, showing him their own hands scarred by years of working in the plant. Four weeks and as many cuts later, Stas decided, “Enough.” But he’s adapting. And other than being overwhelmed my first time back in a grocery store, I’m not really experiencing culture shock. But I miss the excitement of being a Peace Corps volunteer and the apple, peach, and cherry blossoms that adorn the city of Osh in the Spring. Last May, we were applying for our marriage license. Once it was approved, we had a month to plan our wedding. I wouldn’t have chosen a July wedding in the Ferghana Valley, but I was on a wild ride to begin with, living in Kyrgyzstan—a country I’d never heard of—and falling in love with a Russian man during a political coup that would be called, romantically enough, the Tulip Revolution and that almost separated us, but didn’t. No, not culture shock, but some wrenching feeling I try to talk about with Stas, family, and friends. But no one quite understands. I don’t understand.
It’s May, 2017 and we’re looking for jobs again, but we’re not sleeping in. We’re what people call under-employed, both of us working but looking for something better for three years now. If ten years ago I felt the pangs of acute change, now change feels like a glacier wearing me down with its imperceptible progress.
I’ve been a teacher for a decade. Stas has gotten an MA and works in an NGO. I’ve circled the sun ten more times, and that seems to have something to do with a sense of entitlement that creeps in: “I deserve a house.” “Why am I making less than them?” Sometimes I envy the people we were ten years ago, so free of expectations.
In other ways I’m the same person. I still feel like I could be and do many things. I’m still on a wild ride and wondering what’s next. Maybe that’s just me, but people say it’s human nature to constantly strive for more. It’s definitely cultural, and sometimes I worry about the relentless American pursuit of something better. But maybe, too, it’s an intuition that we are bigger than we appear. When I hear a song I love, I feel as big as music. In the Spring, I feel as big as green. I think we know we aren’t made to fail or stagnate or sacrifice ourselves to a job. So we do the brave work of imagining things different, of learning, enduring, leaving and returning.
Among many other things (pastry lover, singer-driver, and middle child), Elizabeth Paul is a teacher and writer living in Arlington, Virginia. Her work has appeared in River Teeth, Cold Mountain Review, Carolina Quarterly, Ekphrasis, and elsewhere. Her chapbook Reading Girl (Finishing Line Press) is a collection of prose poems based on the work of Henri Matisse. You can find out more at elizabethsgpaul.com.
While serving in the Peace Corps, Liz co-created a leadership conference for young women in Kyrgyzstan. She urges you to support locally-grown projects like this around the world through the Peace Corps Partnership Program or the Global Fund. Visit donate.peacecorps.gov