Thoughts of Love & Hope – Entry #3

Apr 27, 2020

I had the opportunity to serve as a volunteer in the Peace Corps in the late 1990s. I was selected to teach in Latvia. Latvia had gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and by 1992 the Peace Corps was placing volunteers in the country to support business development, education, and the establishment of non-governmental organizations.

As part of the initial three-month immersion experience, my cohort of about 20 people was stationed together in the small town of Valmiera, about an hour’s drive from the capital, Riga. Each volunteer lived with a host family while going to school for Latvian and Russian language and culture lessons.

Every weekday morning, I woke up in my host family’s apartment – a small unit in a five-story, Soviet-era brick building. The host family, a mother and her teenage daughter, were gone for the day by the time I woke up, the mother at work and the daughter at school. I got ready for school and ate breakfast by myself. At first, the quiet and the novelty of the situation energized me. I looked forward to learning, about myself and about a world and culture that I knew very little about. After a few weeks, the novelty wore off and I began to feel extraordinarily lonely and anxious. I stopped sleeping and had trouble calming my thoughts. In retrospect, I recognize that I was experiencing culture shock. At the time I didn’t try to diagnose it; I just wanted it to end.

So I looked for ways to take care of myself. I wrote more letters home, which actually exacerbated my feelings of sadness and homesickness. I spent time with my fellow volunteers, which helped in the moment but didn’t really help in the broad sense.

One morning during this time of heightened feelings, on my short walk from the apartment to Valmiera Vidusskola (Valmiera Secondary School), I noticed a small coffee shop not too far from the school. My Latvian was minimal at that early juncture, but kafijas (coffee) was a word I learned right away. I entered the shop and ordered a cup of coffee: kafijas ludzu (coffee please). The space was cozy with just a few tables. The coffee was served in a small mug on a saucer. “To-go” was not an option, so I sat down and slowly drank the dark, thick coffee that I grew to love. There were a few other people in the shop, talking and laughing. They were all speaking Latvian or Russian, and because I hadn’t mastered either language, I didn’t understand what was being said. But I definitely saw people in community with each other. And although I couldn’t understand the words, I understood and shared the feeling: connection as fellow human beings, simply drinking coffee together.

I started visiting that coffee shop daily during my time in Valmiera. In time, that small community in that cozy coffee shop laid the foundation for my healing. Even though I never did master Latvian, and really never talked to any of the patrons at that shop, I knew they saw me and loved me, and I them – in all of our broken and amazing humanity.

That profound lesson of acceptance and welcoming has spoken to me since. Pema Chodron talks about an exercise called “just like me” – noticing and knowing other people in whatever space and time one is occupying, even though we will never truly know their inner story. “Just like me” is seeing humanity in every person, with the deep knowledge that each of us feels pain, sadness, loneliness, fear, joy, hope.

I hadn’t thought about that coffee shop in Latvia in years, but it emerged from my memory about a week ago as I stirred my morning coffee in south St. Louis. I came to understand that the anxiety and loneliness I had been feeling in those early days in Valmiera was really a longing for connection and love: a universal longing in each one of us and the thing that can and should powerfully and authentically bring us together.

Here I am with my host family in Latvia.