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Coming back to it…

February 4, 2012

After a wonderful and far too short trip to Berlin, I’m slipping back into the world of gers and mutton and my work.

School has started again after a short break in January, and this past Friday was “Teacher’s Day” in Mongolia. A day when teachers pick a student representative to teach their classes for them, and us teachers take just a moment to breathe in the middle of what can seem like an interminable winter. Berlin was a chance to breathe as well, and also get an appreciation of just what living next to a coal-burning stove with boiling meat on top can really smell like. My clothes, oh, my clothes. I really was oblivious until I was out of it for a bit.

Last night was a big party for all the teachers and a little Secret-Santa style gift exchange. I received a generous box of hazelnut chocolates and a handsome wallet–I gave a Peace Corps coffee mug, some fancy European tea, a little jar of honey from Italy, and two bars of chocolate.

I hate to return to blogging on a sad note, but it’s the news that pushed me to write this evening after almost a month of missing dispatches from Mongolia (sorry about that). Wislawa Szymborska died on February 1st. She was one of my favorite poets. The reason I came to love her early was all thanks to a book sent to me on my birthday (maybe 10-14, can’t remember exactly when) by my first nanny, Zosia. I’ve always seen this book, both in Polish and in English, as early exposure to the kinds of literature I’d come to appreciate as an adult. I honestly wish I could comb through my bookcase at home to make sure it’s still resting snugly in there somewhere. I’ve been looking over those words of hers that I can find on the internet this evening, and this stood out; it’s from her poem “Nothing Twice.”

Nothing can ever happen twice.

In consequence, the sorry fact is

that we arrive here improvised

and leave without the chance to practice.

If that doesn’t describe the life of a Volunteer, I’m not sure what else does. Year Two: I think all of us talk about it with a sort of mystical fervor, as if it proves something to us that we’ve made it, and as if the familiarity of the place now breeds some kind of routine, but the sorry fact is/ that we arrive here improvised/ and leave without the chance to practice. In many ways, she’s right. I’ve been here for a whopping 19 months, but who’s to say what I really understand about the small patch of desert I’ve been calling home. But in another way, it’s the rules of “improvisation” here that I’ve really learned–the ability to say “Yes, and…” Sitting with my teachers at tables loaded with boiled mutton and dumplings in a chilly gymnasium last night, I felt comfortable in a way that was unthinkable less than a year ago. As she says, Nothing can ever happen twice, and to understand Year Two as another turn on the carousel is just ill-advised, because understanding the improvisation of the place is so much the better. It’s maybe a little bit of a miracle…

Miracle Fair

Commonplace miracle:
that so many commonplace miracles happen.

An ordinary miracle:
in the dead of night
the barking of invisible dogs.

One miracle out of many:
a small, airy cloud
yet it can block a large and heavy moon.

Several miracles in one:
an alder tree reflected in the water,
and that it’s backwards left to right
and that it grows there, crown down
and never reaches the bottom,
even though the water is shallow.

An everyday miracle:
winds weak to moderate
turning gusty in storms.

First among equal miracles:
cows are cows.

Second to none:
just this orchard
from just that seed.

A miracle without a cape and top hat:
scattering white doves.

A miracle, for what else could you call it:
today the sun rose at three-fourteen
and will set at eight-o-one.

A miracle, less surprising than it should be:
even though the hand has fewer than six fingers,
it still has more than four.

A miracle, just take a look around:
the world is everywhere.

An additional miracle, as everything is additional:
the unthinkable
is thinkable.

-Wislawa Szymborska, 1923-2012.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 6, 2012 12:36 pm

    The ability is say “yes”…indeed a gift….good to have you back blogging and teaching and learning…..
    Big Al

  2. Kimberly permalink
    March 19, 2012 10:52 pm

    THIS entry illustrates why you are a writer!
    Poetic celebration of your favorite poet…..
    simply wonderful. And, thank you for the introduction to her work.
    K. Oxie

  3. Kevin Thorsen permalink
    March 23, 2012 4:11 am

    Hey, Rob!

    The subtle way you incorporate your appreciation of her poems into your introductions makes me truly like and appreciate Wislawa Szymborska’s poetry for the first time. Thank you for this gift of phenomenal beauty! That is readable and repeatable.

    I didn’t know you were out in Mongolia. That is so cool, man! I am so proud and happy for you for doing that, and it sounds like getting a lot out of it. I can only imagine what it’s like there, how beautiful and strange.

    I am in the world’s very “opposite” place–New York City. I moved here recently and I have wished I were in a place like the Mongolian desert maybe too many times.

    I really like your writing, and I hope we can reconnect sometime in the future, maybe when you’re out of the desert.

    I will email you some poems and writing I want to share with you.

    Namaste, blessings, and best wishes from an old friend,


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