Here’s the final chapter of my Peace Corps journey. If interested, you can read the full 36-minute account: Leaving Suburbia for the Peace Corps
8. A New Frontier
So much time has passed since I last updated you. So much in fact, that if I had gone to Uganda when I was scheduled to leave (June 2020), I would be in my final five months of service. So much time has passed that my older daughter is about to get engaged, my younger daughter is about to graduate from college, the elders in my family are now 86 and 88, and my husband is now retired from his career as a Federal Prosecutor. So much time has passed that almost a million Americans have died from COVID-19; almost six million worldwide.
So much time has passed that I’ve almost served an entire two-year term as the first Metro Atlanta Bicycle Mayor as part of a 150-bicycle-mayor consortium with the Amsterdam-based social enterprise BYCS. The bike classes I offer online have been downloaded by hundreds of people. The fifty or so profiles I’ve written about people making it more welcoming to ride bikes are the most-viewed content on my blog after the post about when I survived a hit-and-run.
So much time has passed that we’ve had two solid years of Friday night Zoom gatherings at our beloved dining room table, with my daughters from Los Angeles and Boston, my brother-in-law from Florida, my husband, and me.
So much time has passed that my home Sharing Garden is in its third year now, and the Sharing Garden I started at a community garden for refugees in the most diverse square mile in the USA is in its third season.
So much time has passed that my service in the Peace Corps has been delayed six times — the most recent time being right before my family gathered, yet again, around that dining room table for Thanksgiving after missing a year due to COVID-19. That email warns that we would have to affirmatively accept significant increased risk due to the pandemic, and that our roles would be noticeably changed to focus on coronavirus relief.
This feels like a pivot, and I know pivots. My friend had been asking me to rollerskate ever since she and her daughter started a year earlier, as part of a global trend during the pandemic, but I had said no because I didn’t want to risk an injury that would threaten my medical clearance. This past June, however when my younger daughter decided to get skates, I joined her. I was willing to take that risk, and I now find myself pivoting — literally — every day at the park, on parking deck rooftops, and in my kitchen. But am I willing to accept these other risks posed by serving in a mostly-unvaccinated country in increasingly dire conditions? After being steadily committed to my potential Peace Corps service during this long wait, I am now no longer sure.
Maybe there is another way to serve, I wonder. I sign up for AmeriCorps, the domestic Peace Corps-like program and I am inundated with requests-to-serve all across the USA. The projects sound terrific, and you are paid a stipend which comes out to something like five dollars an hour. Unlike the Peace Corps, however, AmeriCorps does not cover housing. I limit the options to projects in Metro Atlanta, where I already live, and almost accept a position but it would require me to drive my car there in truly hostile conditions that are no longer acceptable to me, especially after surviving road violence.
I see news of what’s called The Great Resignation about the unprecedented number of people who are quitting and changing their jobs. I have not changed one word on my LinkedIn profile or resume, and yet I’m suddenly being bombarded with new job opportunities. After years of freelancing and pro bono leadership, and for the first time since I applied to the Peace Corps, I consider the possibility of going back to a full-time job.
Shortly thereafter, the Peace Corps sends an email asking if we are still “in,” and that our probable departure date now is around August 1, 2022. My husband and I decide we might as well stay in for a bit longer just to see how things shake out.
The online portal, long-dormant, now springs alive. The infrequent communications to which we’ve grown frustratingly accustomed during the pandemic accelerate. I get a long list of required tasks, as all of the medical clearances of “legacy volunteers” (which is what we are called) have now expired. It overwhelms me, and I’m pissed off when I see they require me to provide a doctor’s note and a lengthy personal statement responding to a laundry list of questions about my “heart condition.” I don’t have a heart condition. I have a low heart rate because I ride a bike and rollerskate every single day. Two years older now, I’m also required to provide additional documentation about what they call “age-related” issues. I consider taking one bite at a time of this new “elephant” and yet, I realize maybe I don’t want to.
I don’t fault them, nor my faltering. The fit is not feeling right anymore, and it is unsettling.
When in doubt, plant. When in doubt, pray.
I plant. I pray.
And then, God appears.
God appears in the form of an email from the CDC Foundation, which is a nonprofit agency that extends the work and impact of the Centers for Disease Control to state departments of health and other organizations across the USA. On the application, it asks if I have any association with the Peace Corps, and I tell my story and status.
I get the interview.
I get the job.
I am hired as a Communications Specialist with the CDC Foundation, working exclusively with the State of Alaska, whose nickname is “The Last Frontier”. It is 100% remote so I do not have to drive. In fact, due to the time difference, I work four hours early in the morning on writing and research, and four hours later in the day-into-evening on meetings and creative collaboration. That means I have a block of time in the middle of the day to do my pro bono work, to ride my bike and rollerskate, and to take care of my family needs.
I am currently seven weeks in on this new job, and it is practically perfect. The people are warm and talented. The work is meaningful. What’s more, the State of Alaska is significantly ahead of other USA states on feeling the impacts of climate change, including its intersection with public health, and learning more about this is of enormous interest to me. It somehow feels like where I’m meant to be, and I never would have predicted this turn of events. My motto of “trust the journey” has been tested, and has prevailed. I wonder if, perhaps, God never intended for me to go to Uganda, that it was just a way to get me to Alaska.
The position, however, is grant-funded just through the end of July. It ends, in fact, exactly when I am still scheduled to leave. Although that sounds like a perfect scenario, something does not feel right to me. After two years of seeing myself step off that plane at Entebbe International Airport, I can no longer visualize this. I trust the journey, and that includes trusting my gut. Something is wrong.
A two-day package arrives. It is from the Peace Corps legal department. I leave it on the kitchen counter for days before opening it with my family at the next Friday night Zoom gathering. It is new fingerprint cards. I shake my head. My fingerprints are on so many new things now, so many new people, than they were three years ago when I first applied to the Peace Corps. But my fingerprints have not changed.
I have, however.
I have changed.
This I know for sure.
When I first applied in June 2019, for a position in Jamaica, I had researched and discovered a common phrase there for when extra people are being squeezed into a van or other tight spot.
“Small up yourself,” they say, and for some reason this has always unsettled me. As women in this world, we are often marginalized. Asked — told — to make ourselves smaller. As a 5’1’ woman who has now officially been over age 55 — a senior — for more than three years, I have been living out loud, bigger, bolder, and I like it. I thought serving in the Peace Corps would be my pivot, a way of opening up new possibilities, of raging against the dying of the light, of sharing what little I know while acquiring new skills from people living face-to-face with so many additional challenges, but I now realize, for sure, that the pivot has already happened.
War breaks out in Ukraine. Storms surge. My mother receives a new diagnosis of concern. It is almost March 4, march forth, and I know I need to make a decision. The decision. I know that once decisions are made, the world conspires in your favor. I know, from rollerskating down ramps at the skate park (something that had petrified me at first), that being “all in” is when fear lifts. When purpose presents itself. When possibilities expand.
I take that leap of faith. I dream a bigger dream.
I officially close the door, so a new one can open.
I welcome a new frontier.
Pattie Baker is a professional copywriter; author of Food for My Daughters, Bucket List, and Traveling at the Speed of Bike; and a member of Mensa. She is also a pro bono urban organic farmer; League of American Bicyclists Cycling Instructor (#5382); Bicycle Mayor as part of a global consortium with the Amsterdam-based social enterprise BYCS; and PeopleForBikes Ambassador. Follow her on TikTok at SpeedOfBike and her blogs at FoodForMyDaughters.wordpress.com and TravelingAtTheSpeedOfBike.com. She created the “You Go, Girl!” Toolkit, the first collection of free classes and resources to help more women and girls around the world access and ride bikes.