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The more things change, the more they are the same

8 Jun

So, I was looking for my coloring book and instead I found a large sheaf of papers from late 2001/early 2002: My Peace Corps application. Holy cow. How did that get here? Why did I keep this? I routinely shred everything that is >7 years old (unless it’s like a deed or something). How on earth did this manage to evade the shredder for more than 13 years?

Well, let’s see what it contains!

Oooh! I think it will actually have my full immunization records, which will be super handy when I have to turn in my pre-fieldwork medical clearance paperwork. Sweet! It *does*! Score!

….oh and it also has all kinds of details about the psychological counseling that I [apparently] proactively sought (and had forgotten all about) during law school in connection with the aftermath of my dad’s suicide. Jeez. Wow. Did I really do that? Fascinating…

Here’s how I explained my “Reasons for Seeking Counseling” to the Peace Corps:

Upon returning to law school, I noticed that my sleeping patterns were becoming erratic. My sleep troubles became more pronounced in September after we received the official coroner’s report, which ruled that suicide was, indeed, the cause of my father’s death. I recognized that altered sleeping habits could be a sign of depression and therefore I decided to meet with the school’s psychological counselor in order to get some help with coping techniques.

Wow. That’s right, I *did* do that! And Peace Corps made like a major federal case out of my mental health status, which required like 3 extra rounds of submissions and verifications and treatment statements from third parties. Here’s a snippet from the third party reviewer that ultimately got my “medical hold” lifted so that I could actually join the Peace Corps:

… Ms. Zeisler’s history of functioning is superior. She has a wide range of activities. Life’s problems never seem to get out of hand. She maintained, and continues to maintain, many friendships and relationships because of these positive qualities. … The symptoms [for which she sought treatment] were isolated and appropriate for the loss of a parental figure. The inner strength, coping mechanisms, and intellectual functioning that Ms. Zeisler possesses displayed itself clearly in how she managed her life following her father’s death. … With her level of functioning and ability to adapt, Ms. Zeisler will be able to function at a high level even in the most challenging type of environments.


I was a resilient little person even back before I really needed to be. I have *so* got this “Crafts problem” under control. OT school will be just fine! I eat challenges for breakfast and thrive on change. BRING IT ON, new life!

And then I dug deeper into the packet.

No. Fucking. WAY!

Item 24.

Cross-Cultural Experience Essay

Now, I *knew* that one of my weaknesses going into the Peace Corps application process was that I had lived a pretty sheltered life up until that point. Sure, I’d been to a few countries (Canada, Mexico, Spain with my high school class, the Czech Republic for work, a long weekend in Japan to see a friend, a short trip to Italy to visit my sister), but I hadn’t *really* immersed myself into any foreign cultures. Truth be told, however, if someone had asked me last week what I had written in 2001 in response to the Peace Corps’ request for a Cross-Cultural Experience Essay, I would have made up a memory and told them that I wrote about my 10 days of work in the Czech Republic in 1998, helping my U.S. client close negotiations to acquire several casino properties — because that actually seems like the thing I *should* have written about given that I desired to join the Eastern European Business Development arm of the Peace Corps.

But, no, that “memory” would have been wrong.

And if you had asked me to dredge up any part of the memory that actually formed the predicate for my Cross-Cultural Experience Essay, I never in a million years could have come up with even the tiniest shred of an independent recollection regarding the events that I described in the essay.

As soon as I read the opening line of my Cross-Cultural Experience Essay, however, those memories came flooding back. And along with that happy flood of memories came a tidal wave of deep appreciation for when and why and how the universe has somehow managed to bring me RIGHT BACK to where I was back then and where I need to be today and where I’m heading in my future.

So, here’s the Essay. Here’s the proof that we continue to be reminded of lessons that we already learned (and then forget and need to re-learn again) and we keep getting opportunities to live the lives we’re supposed to live.

Item 24.

Cross-Cultural Experience Essay

In the Summer of 1993, Zoe was 7 years old. I was 20 and about to begin my final year at UCLA. As best as I can recall, the index card in the Career Center that brought us together read something like this: “Caregiver/babysitter wanted to assist family on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays, 3-5 hours per day. $12 per hour. Female preferred. Must have own car.” Little did I know that in answering that ad I was about to enter another world.

Zoe’s parents offered to pay the outlandish sum of $12 and hour [FN: “Outlandish” at least for an untrained college students in the early nineties!] for a caregiver/babysitter because Zoe was autistic. At my initial interview with the family, Zoe’s parents explained that autistics think, speak, act, and socialize in manners that initially can seem bizarre. Indeed, Zoe’s autistic culture was radically different from mine, as a non-autistic.

Working with Zoe required that I learn a new language (picto-grams) and act in an unfamiliar manner (constantly repeating words and actions, and moving very slowly). At first, it was very frustrating trying to adjust to her well-established patterns and customs. I wanted so very much to help her, but for the first two weeks I kept trying to “make” her do things “my way.” Eventually I realized that she did things just fine in her own way and it was up to me to help her use her methods more effectively in the outside world.

Zoe’s therapist explained to me that autistic children experience everyday life as unpredictable and chaotic, and they are threatened by this chaos. Zoe essentially lacked the ability to separate important from unimportant stimuli. The outside world assailed her with intense force. Once I started to really think about what it would be like to live in that kind of environment, I was not only much better able to relate to her, but we also made better progress at helping her adapt in different social settings.

In order to try to reach into Zoe’s world, I developed novel approaches that one would not ordinarily use in a typical social setting. For example, I discovered that if I stood to Zoe’s side, where she could see me in her peripheral vision, and if I did not try to look at, or talk directly to, her, we could carry on a fairly lengthy conversation because she did not feel threatened. This discovery led to a breakthrough in her therapy and I was so pleased to have lucked onto it.

My understanding of Zoe, as an individual, enabled me to quickly adapt my behaviors when we would meet other autistic children in her therapist’s waiting room. Gone were my rambunctious, spirited ways–replaced by quiet, slow-moving actions. This was often achingly difficult for me, but my adaptation and patience were occasionally rewarded with a shy, sideways-spoken “Thank you,” or a quick flash of the “happy face” picto-gram. And those rewards resonate across all cultural boundaries.

I love this essay for several reasons:

  1. It resurrected a memory that had left no trace in my Etch-a-Sketch;
  2. It showed that I really knew how to craft a tale back then and reminds me that I need to keep striving with my writing;
  3. It’s NOT what you expect for such an essay, which reminds me that doing the unexpected often yields the best results;
  4. It apparently WORKED to get me into the Peace Corps, despite my “precarious” mental health and the federal government’s initial unwillingness/inability to see how a lawyer could be useful to their program [eye roll]; and
  5. Once my essay about Zoe got me to Ukraine and I got to start using my talents in the classoom, the lecture series that my students loved the most was the one that I based upon Dr. Cheri Scott’s “Rules of Life,” which I previously shared on this blog [if you’d like a refresher, you can check it out HERE].

Pulling all of those things together, we circle back to Rule #4: Lessons repeat until learned.

I’ve learned the lessons set forth in my Cross-Cultural Experience Essay so many times, in so many different contexts, and I’m thrilled for the opportunity to learn them again in this next chapter of my life. Maybe this time they will stick in my Etch-a-Sketch, or maybe I’ll get to experience them again in another time or space.

Either way, I know that no matter what happens, I will enjoy the opportunity to learn, embrace the gift of my resiliency, and do my best to share what I learn with others.


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