Walking with my neighbor Lena of Kazakhstan after lunch in downtown Prishtina, I shared a recent, rather bizarre dream I'd had. Did you dream it last night? she asked. No. I thought back in my week. On Wednesday night. Oh, she said. You should pay special attention to dreams you have on Thursdays through Sundays. Why, I asked, wondering if those cigarettes she'd smoked were packed with something more potent than tobacco. They tell you more, they mean more, she said. It's just something about the cycle of time.
Hmm. I continued to share about the small dog I had adopted in my dream. It was soft, small and furry, but its head kept shape-shifting into an anteater's, with a long, skinny nose. I had to hold it close to my chest all the time, and when I took it outside to go to the bathroom, it fell into a puddle of rain water and started to drown. I snatched it up and squeezed its little brown body like a balloon, so that water squirted out its long nose. It sputtered and started breathing again, its little feet turning into the claws of a lizard, gripping my fingers as if it would never let go.
Lena thought about the dream as we turned into the alley on the way to our apartment building. Just hearing this, she said, I think there's someone in your life who has to make a change, make a decision. And this decision might hurt other people. But the person has to choose. She paused. I think this person will choose what is best for herself/himself, even if it hurts other people.
At the time, I'd found her interpretation interesting, as I had a friend in a job he didn't like, and I wondered whether his choice to quit or stay would hurt loved ones or colleagues.
A week later, I think the dream may have been more personal than that.
Since I arrived in Kosovo a month ago, I've been struggling, not only to adapt to the culture, the "Albanian" way of communicating and interacting, but to my teaching job. I feel overwhelmed, exhausted. When I'm not teaching class, trying to convince adults not to interrupt or speak over each other, while simultaneously explaining the rules of when to use the past perfect continuous verb tense, I'm prepping, trying to understand how to be a more creative teacher. I've never taught before, and so much is unknown.
I'm an introvert by nature. Some people are surprised when I say this, unless you've roomed with me, and know how much time I spend alone. I love people, I love talking to new people, hearing their stories, but I most love one-on-one time, to really engage and get to know them. And after that hour with someone? I spend two or four hours by myself, processing and recharging.
After three weeks of teaching, the exhaustion and feeling of being overwhelmed was getting worse. It seemed a good time for my psyche to add anxiety and panic attacks to the mix. I like my students, I'm sure they're good people, I just want them to stop asking me questions. To stop expecting me to have all the answers.
Maaaaaybe teaching isn't for me.
Within a week I had made my decision to return to the U.S. It wasn't only to find a different job and escape the bad evaluations of my teaching style. I was reminded of another, more practical conversation with Lena of Kazakhstan. You're going to have to decide whether you're living abroad or in the U.S., she told me. You're going to have to choose. The longer you're away, the harder it is to return. You need to decide where you want to create community.
Lena seems prone to seeing the negative side of things, and making pronouncements. But this stuck with me. I want to travel, to see new places, meet new people, share their stories through my writing. But I want to be in community with my family and friends, to honor and foster the long-term friendships that have shaped my life. To be present for major occasions, the birth of a baby, a birthday, an anniversary, as well as everyday occasions, little revelations over cups of coffee and unexpected laughter. I want to create this community at home, and continue to travel to expand my understanding of it in the world.
I don't want to hurt the friends I have to say goodbye to here, but I believe that you can only give real love and joy from a healthy, full reserve in yourself. Looking back at the dream where I reached into the water to rescue the drowning, sputtering animal who couldn't pull itself out, I realize I may be both that little, narrow-nosed, furry, claw-footed creature, and its caretaker.
The life you save may be your own. (Flannery O'Connor)