Asleep in the sun, this guy’s got the right idea…
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…
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:
-Wislawa Szymborska, 1923-2012.
Thank you Aunt Liz, Aunt Ann, and all the 1st graders from Montclair Elementary! I’ve been busy numbering the books and keeping track of each one in an Excel spreadsheet. Here’s what our new library looks like so far. That bookcase is almost bursting at the seams!
We all got some very sad news about fellow Volunteers in Mozambique today.
You can find the press release here.
Thanks to the incredible generosity of the first graders at Montclair Elementary School in Omaha, Nebraska, and from my very own Aunt Liz and Aunt Ann, the library here in Mongolia is growing by leaps and bounds!
This is absolutely incredible. The first boxes began to arrive about a week ago, and last Saturday we had a special class so students could come and see all of the wonderful new books that you’ve sent them for their new English library. This week I’ve been busy cataloging all the new books and putting them into an Excel spreadsheet so students can begin to check them out. I’ve got some pictures to share with you, so you can all see just how excited everybody was to get such a wonderful gift this December.
As the books continue to arrive, I’ll keep taking pictures and posting them as I can. Also, the students around here are going to write the 1st graders of Montclair Elementary a big pile of thank you cards that hopefully I can send off to Nebraska in the near future. From me, my fellow teachers, and my students, THANK YOU!
Midwinter spring is its own season
Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,
Suspended in time, between pole and tropic.
When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire,
The brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches,
In windless cold that is the heart’s heat,
Reflecting in a watery mirror
A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon.
In recent weeks, I’ve been nagged by a sense of space and time. I say nagged, because it keeps surprising me while I’m reading or listening to something. It comes from my familiar headwater of ideas and information: good ol’ fashioned books and podcasts. Call it Reading-Stephen-Hawking-in-the-Gobi Syndrome, but really, it’s been cropping up in too many things to count. I’ll just mention one because it’s concise. A Radiolab episode describes a Peace Corps Volunteer spending two years in the jungle in Africa. He’d lived in a small community, surrounded on all sides by dense forest—the people of his community only cleared enough of the forest to make room for small huts and meeting spaces. At the end of his service, he left the jungle and spent two weeks on the plains of Kenya with a friend, another Volunteer. The first, the one who had lived in the jungle, described his profound sense of anxiety and unease at now being exposed on the open plain. Without the comforting concealment of the forest, he always felt as if something was creeping up behind him.
The story worked itself in. I’d always been one to consider the vastness of the Mongolian countryside, and the Gobi in particular, as awesome, in the truest and most literal sense of the word. But I often have to stare at the ground when I walk to school, because the view almost triggers something like horizontal vertigo—instead of feeling like I might fall, I feel like I might walk forever and never find the end—like the axes on some giant, three dimensional graph of time and space.
Here I’ve been occupying this 12-foot in diameter circular tent for nigh on 15 months, every day stepping a little closer to closing what’s sure to be a major chapter of my life. The contrast between this little felt cave and that enormous horizon is part of the unease. I’ve also watched my town experience the explosive growth and development that mining money and job opportunities can offer when one of the largest coal deposits in the world is only a stone’s throw away. But mining is at once a rose and the thorn. I’ve been witness to millions of tons of rock pulled from the earth and moved around by machines that dwarf even the largest dump trucks you’ve seen with your average American road crew.
That is to the south of town. All I have to do is turn north to catch a glimpse of a desert that probably hasn’t changed a whole lot since the last ice age, and probably won’t change any time in the near future. Here I am, in the presence of both, and the collusion of the space and the time makes me a little uneasy—makes me feel a little exposed. I guess we just don’t notice these things until all of a sudden we do: the old and the young alive together, buildings that are older still, traditions and speech that are older than that, with the earth and rocks clocking in some time before that. It’s something the desert is uniquely capable of making apparent. I chalk it up to the size of the canvas and the scarcity of brushstrokes—like the way that painting by Georges Seurat looks strange up close but becomes an orderly picture from far away—you know the one, the painting of a Sunday afternoon in the park, featured momentarily in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Maybe those wild assertions of quantum physicists, about all times existing at once, aren’t so far off when we have a moment to break it down and take a long hard look at the picture in front of us.
The linearity of all of it is a little bit of an illusion, and so my fear of that particular line in Mongolia ending, of closing that chapter, is unfounded. As I said, it’s my open plain, and my exposure is limited only to my own introspection, no need to feel like it’s creeping up behind me. I have to believe that the person I’ve become here in Mongolia has a reality that follows me home, and conversely that the learning and changing I’ve done is really just a facet of the person I always thought I was. I can’t bear the thought that between here and there is an event horizon that refuses to let each time and place speak to the other, both the before and the after. Travel long enough in one direction and you’ll end up where you started, someplace where this soup of experiences and opinions somehow makes itself into a recognizable picture, and someplace where progress and being who we always were are one in the same.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of the earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
-T. S. Eliot