On March 30, 2018, I was notified by the United States Peace Corps that I had been selected for a nine-month assignment in the Eastern Caribbean. This was not any old dream come true. It was the dream I had carried with me since childhood. Not only that, but the project was ideal. I would be working with youth on an eco-tourism initiative; location, paradise. A Peace Corps volunteer was my life-long notion of who I was meant to be. It was what I always expected to do; explore different cultures and be of service to others.
As it went, I adjusted my PC dream at age 22 for a more traditional path of marriage and family. I gladly redirected my love and energy towards caring for my children and nurturing my family, while maintaining the hope that I would one day explore other countries and somehow be of service in the world. Fast forward 30 years, and all hopes of visiting other cultures and making a difference in the world had been abandoned. My marriage had dissolved and my financial stability and my familiar place as a mother went with it.
Finding myself on my own at midlife, I had been struggling to regain my footing. Chasing after jobs for professional advancement and so-called financial security, I was killing myself trying to regain a sense of identity and direction. Grief and regret were full-time residents in my psyche and my innately positive spirit was losing steam. After yet another rough encounter with rejection in December of 2017, I realized I had nothing left to lose and decided to take a risk and go back to the beginning. I applied to the Peace Corps and against all odds, I got in.
A Dream in Reach
So, there I was last Spring, at 59 years old, with a second chance at fulfilling my lifelong dream. Who knew? This, I thought, was a clear lesson; don't ever give up. Never lose hope. I spent the next two months finalizing preparations to leave the country; doctor visits, medical records, lab reports, immunizations, assigning power of attorney, closing bank accounts, notifying bill payees, subletting my apartment and packing up my personal belongings. Oh, and one very exciting trip to REI to purchase sun gear, SPF clothing, mosquito netting, and other miscellaneous items to protect me from the elements on my forthcoming adventure. I was stoked!
This is when the story shifted. In the course of all my preparations and forward movement, on April 13, to be exact, my mid-century body decided to give out and gave me a medical scare that sent me to the hospital. It was a minor thing that I actually recovered from in record time, but on June 1, three days before I was to fly to St. Lucia, I received this message: "We know this isn't what you want to hear and we appreciate your application, but the Medical Review Board is unable to authorize your medical clearance for service in the Peace Corps." It was over. A done deal. The Peace Corps was off the radar once again. I suddenly found myself without a job, without a place to live, all my belongings in bags and boxes stored in three different places, and my heart broken. My recruiter encouraged me to challenge the decision, which I did, but in the end it didn't matter. My dream was once again deferred.
And this is when the real journey began.
Without a job, I could not go back to a place of my own to live. I was completely untethered and filled with fear. How would I live? Where would I go? What would I do? What on earth was I doing in this situation? I was scared and quite honestly, physically and mentally exhausted from all the preparations, packing and moving. Subsequently, I was finally forced to surrender. No more chasing jobs. No more trying to prove my competence. Forget seeking fulfillment and wondering what I was supposed to be doing with my life. I was slam dunked into the present moment.
For the next six months, I drove from place to place, staying with friends and family and in between, finding respite at a monastery on the Hudson River. After being warmly welcomed day after day into comfortable guest rooms and well-stocked kitchens, I began to let myself to relax into the experience. I was down, but I certainly was not out. I was slow to accept the experience of being taken care of, but by doing so I found a sense of calm and resignation like I had never known before. I was stymied by a feeling of limbo, but at the same time felt the release of complete surrender. The love and support I received every day, day after day, became a deluge of warmth and wonder. I was being renewed.
While I continued to search for meaning in the unfortunate turn of events, I looked for work and tried to figure out what to do next. The one thing I kept coming back to was, although I had been totally displaced and profoundly disappointed, I was safe and protected in every way. Throughout the entire six months, I never missed a meal and I slept in a bed every night. Several times I had the good fortune of being invited into big, comfortable homes to care for furry, friendly pets while their owners were on vacation. It was a simple gift to be of use in this way.
What I discovered was that for the first time in my life, I was not playing beat the clock. I was released of the burden of constantly ruminating over everything I "should be doing." To my delight, I stumbled upon daily order and comfort in the most unexpected and beautiful ways; making a cup of coffee, watching the shift of daylight on the water, or listening for the ringing of local church bells. In an odd way, without a job or an address, I found myself unattached to an identity. With this revelation, I let myself relinquish my self-judgment and the harsh way I had been measuring my entire life. My ego had no choice but to go.
Throughout my gypsy detour, I was called upon to deepen my faith in myself and the order of things through the experience of being totally detached. Sitting on the shore of the Mighty Hudson one day, I confronted the fact that my entire notion of what I had always thought my life "would be" had been completely short-circuited. I had no comforts of home, no financial security, no semblance of the family I had poured my heart and soul into, and no career or professional accomplishment to call by name. Not even my lifelong dream of joining the Peace Corps was viable anymore. Short circuits all the way.
And yet, by giving up my attachment to what I had always hoped for and abandoning all expectations during this period of time, I was invited to be even further "broken open" as author Elizabeth Lesser describes it. Through it all, I discovered that the pain and loss I had walked through during the previous 10 years had made me grip onto self-will and self-judgment even more fiercely, ultimately leaving me feeling more alone and continually disappointed.
In the end, letting go of my idea of how I was to experience what my life was to become, what the universe had in store for me, was the real adventure I was meant to have. By fully releasing my attachment to outcomes and my "hope" for the specific way I would explore the world and be of service to others, I began to more fully trust in the flow of my life and find grace in the experience.
My detour turned out to be the trip of a lifetime. It was the ultimate experience, clearing the way for me to ultimately fulfill who I have always meant to be. This, I now know, is the lesson that had been waiting for me all along. I’m open and eager to discover where I go next.
Susan Ahlstrom generously offers her unique skills and experience to help individuals and organizations connect with opportunity. She is Founder and Director of Duende Networks, LLC, a consulting company that provides coaching and resources for women and youth to identify and build on their strengths to expand their lives. Susan has three grown children and recently moved to RI to be closer to the inspiration and energy of the ocean