As usual, I am not writing in chronological order. If I were, there are many posts in line ahead of this one. But this is what has prompted me to shake off the jet lag and get back to writing.
Coming back to the US was hard. Very hard. We were only away 10 months, but it feels like much longer. The trip itself was ridiculous (and will get its own post), but once we got home, I fell into a mild depression (in a non-clinical sense). Part of it has been jetlag; I didn’t sleep much for the first week back, and now I seem to sleep every other night, but it’s getting better. Part of it is the state the house was in when we got home. Everyone is different, and no one is going to take care of your home the way you do. And the things that you let slide aren’t going to be as annoying as the things someone else lets slide. (The specific things I’m thinking about here are the massive fruit fly infestation in the kitchen/family room and the $700 water bill for letting a toilet run for a really long time without getting it fixed.) (Oh, and the bags of liquified produce in the produce drawers of the fridge. Gah. Still have to clean those out.) On the whole, though, the house was fine, and the animals were all alive and healthy when we got home, which was the really important thing. We have a ton of cleaning to do, and we need to bring out and put away everything we’d packed up. But it’s all doable, if we just take it a bit at a time.
Part of it was getting a layoff notice from my employer here, UCSD, from whom I’d taken a leave of absence to go to Mongolia. It doesn’t take effect until July 1, 2020, thanks to our strong union contract, so I have teaching for the next year. But it still felt like a kick in the gut and didn’t make me feel better about leaving a position where I was loved and needed at Mongolia International University.
But a lot of the pain of reentry is the state the country is in. Watching it fall apart from a distance was upsetting and surreal, but seeing it up close and personal is devastating. On the surface, everything seems normal, but maybe that is part of the problem. Everything seems normal, but it emphatically isn’t normal. Not even close. When we left, the horrific treatment of asylum seekers was already underway, as was the systematic dismantling of whatever progress had been made under previous administrations. But this past week has been a real shitshow. That’s the only word that comes up when I try to think about it.
Emma’s been going to camp this past week at the Safari Park in Escondido, which is about a 25-mile drive east of us. So we jumped right back into the gas-guzzling lifestyle of southern California. Driving still feels weird after nearly a year, and my car really needs to go into the shop for a check-up (the air conditioning doesn’t work, the brakes don’t sound good, and a piece of the car fell off in a parking lot the other day). But I managed the 500 or so miles to get her to and from camp this week. It’s her only camp of the summer, and she’s learning a lot about wildlife conservation and animal care and behavior (her possible careers are in these areas), so it’s worth it. And I thought it would be a good trial run for getting back into the school routine, the one where I have to drive her and make her lunches and stuff like that. Making lunches for the first time in a year has been interesting. I forgot how to do it. So having a low-stakes, week-long practice session is really helpful.
Another thing that happened since we’ve been back is that the South African singer Johnny Clegg died. I don’t know if you know him, but he had been living with pancreatic cancer for a couple of years now. He did a Final Journey tour in 2018, but I wasn’t able to go. I saw him in concert once, I think, a long time ago. But I listened to his music a lot, since I first discovered it in 1984. So, while we were driving back and forth to the Safari Park, I introduced Emma to the CDs I still have: Scatterlings; Work for All; Third World Child; Shadow Man; Cruel, Crazy, Beautiful World; and Heat, Dust and Dreams. It was a chance to remember him and his music, as well as remember the story of South Africa he told. I hadn’t listened to any of it much over the last 10 years or so (since Emma took control of our musical life), but it’s even more powerful now as so many countries are starting to slide into fascism, including ours.
So, all of this is to say that I have had a lot of time for thinking and reflection as I drive home from bringing Emma to camp and drive back to pick her up. And in between. And a lot of that is happening with the revolutionary songs of Johnny Clegg in the background. Boy, do they fit the times. “The West is sleeping in a fragile freedom. Forgotten is the price that was paid” (from the song “One (Hu)Man, One Vote” on Cruel, Crazy, Beautiful World). Boy, howdy.
So, the shitshow. The president of the United States tweeting that four Americans elected to the House of Representatives need to go back to the “broken and crime infested” countries they are from (the United States, in three of their cases). The fact that this increases his popularity with Republicans. The chants of “Send her back” at his stupid rally, which he encourages. And the abuse and torture of asylum seekers and US residents continues unabated. All of it makes it painfully obvious that this was the moment that American racists have been waiting for, to come out of the shadows and proclaim their hatred loudly and publicly once again. To torment, hurt, and kill people who are not like them. To try to purge their beloved white country (which has never, ever been white) of people who do not look like them, except the ones that they need to perform labor that their beloved fellow whites don’t want to perform. This horrid genie was let out of the bottle two and a half years ago, and it’s going to take a lot of work to put it back in. A lot of work.
The state of the union is a lot like the state of my house. A definite mess, but one that can mostly be cleaned up with a lot of hard work. There’s some permanent damage to the union, some stuff that is never going to go away. People who died, who are no longer here to contribute their light to the world. Families shattered that will never be put back together. Communities torn apart by hatred that may never be the same again. Sometimes hard work isn’t enough. But maybe we can restore some of what we lost in November 2016. And maybe, knowing what we know about the fragile state of democracy here, we can work to make it better. This is a long-term struggle that goes well beyond the 2020 election and who wins it.
In fact, it’s a struggle that’s been going on for a long time and that, for many people, never really ended. Racism and sexism have always had a home in the United States. Our national fairy tale is one of equality and freedom for all, but we all need to realize it’s a fairy tale. A story some of us tell ourselves to make sense of our world and give us a feeling of control over our society. Many people are left out of that fairy tale, and they are being hurt the most by this administration, but they were never treated equally, and they never had real freedom. (If you don’t know American history, check out the Howard Zinn project; Zinn himself has died, but his work continues, and the books A People’s History of the United States and its companion for youth, A Young People’s History of the United States, make excellent reading.)
Having our reentry to the United States happen to a soundtrack by Johnny Clegg has helped immensely. Being able to tell Emma about the history of apartheid in South Africa, its connection to fascism in other parts of the world, its ultimate demise, the ongoing struggles in South Africa, and the parallels to our own times here in the US has been cathartic, in a sense. A lot of the anguish I bottled up as I watched the American shitshow from afar is being released. And ending the week with Heat, Dust, and Dreams has been perfect: the clarion call to rebuild a society that was torn apart by hatred. (Just listen to “When the System Has Fallen” and you’ll see what I mean.) Because, as a friend of mine said, despair is a luxury these days. All of us need to work for our future.
(I’ll keep writing about Mongolia-related things here in this blog; I have a backlog of posts that need to be finished. But I’ll also be starting up another blog “Alien in North County” soon, about our life here in northern San Diego County. So you can check that one out, too. I should have it going in a week or so. I’m aiming for one or two posts a week to each blog for the rest of the summer.)