Heading back to Mongolia

The summer, like most things, didn’t go according to plan. I had thought that I would have plenty of time for writing and for making progress on the book that is emerging from our experience in Mongolia. Emma wanted to focus on her drawing and on hanging out with the dogs. Instead, inspired by our somewhat minimalist experience in Mongolia and in preparation for moving next June, we decided to do a big clear out.

Emma grew up a lot during our time in Mongolia. It seems like the difference between 12 and 13 is huge. When we came back, all her clothes seemed wrong (and many were too small)—colorful kid clothes instead of the black that she now prefers. Also, she no longer plays with toys like she did before we left. The families of plastic creatures were no longer imbued with life as they had been. The stuffed animals had been put away in boxes when we learned about her dust mite allergy last year, so it didn’t make sense to keep most of them. She is no longer interested in crafts or construction, so a lot of the kits and craft materials could go. Even many of her books were no longer of interest, as she had moved on to other levels and genres of reading. We also weeded out about two Trader Joe’s bags of DVDs.

I was more able to let go of things that had seemed important to me before. I got rid of about half of my clothes, to start. Then, in preparation for another house sitter, a single woman this time, I cleared out my office/bedroom, which turned out to be a huge job. I had shoved a lot of stuff in there before we left because the last house sitters were mainly using the upstairs bedrooms, so Emma and I had cleaned those and packed everything away last summer. I also needed to clear out half the closet so the new house sitter would have a place to put her clothes.

So, while Emma went to visit her best friend from her once and future school who had moved to Colorado in June, I set to work going through piles, emptying boxes, clearing out cupboards and closets, and just generally figuring out how to dispose of a lot of stuff. Much of it had belonged to my parents. I had just boxed up and moved a lot of things from their house when I was getting ready to sell it in 2011 because I didn’t have time to go through it then. I knew it would have to be done before we sell our house and move next summer, so it seemed like it was time. Going through their things made me feel as though I was spending time with them. It wasn’t as heart-wrenching as it would have been before. It’s been over 12 years since my dad died, and over 10 since my mother died, and they still live vividly in my head. But it’s less painful to think about them now, and the anger I used to feel at their mistreatment by doctors and hospitals has faded. When I think of them now, it’s of earlier times, before they were sick and dying. This was helpful for going through the boxes of my father’s computer and video projects (gee, I’m glad I gave space in my house to an entire box of Adobe Photoshop and Premier books from 2004), or my mother’s books and papers.

A lot of this purging was strangely emotional. Getting rid of so many of Emma’s stuffed animals was exhausting, as we remembered the many personalities that had occupied her time as she played with them, the many creatures who had livened up our car rides and road trips. Her collection of Audubon birds, for instance, had been a huge part of our car rides to and from school with another child who also began collecting the birds. The birds had intermarried, had families, careers, full lives in the back seat of the car through several years of carpooling. There was also the collection of Breyer’s horses that I had kept from my own childhood, names long forgotten but family relationships well remembered. I’d had them for over 40 years, though they’d spent a lot of that time in a box until Emma was old enough to play with them. Emma had added to the collection with a few of her own, but she’s no longer as interested in horses, and we decided it was time for them to move on.

What really got me, though, was going through the boxes from my father’s desk. After he retired, my dad pursued his interests in photo and video editing and family history (among many other things; my parents had an active retirement). The third bedroom in their house became the computer room, where he spent many hours working on various projects. He had always enjoyed photography, and he got a video camera in the 1990s, so he had a lot of material to work from. I had his old slide scanner, the aforementioned box of how-to books, and a box of things from his desk. I had packed the tray from his desk drawer in its entirety, and clearing it out to give away allowed me to revisit his everyday life. He had been in the middle of things, of course, when he rapidly sickened and died from a rare form of cancer (angiosarcoma) at 74. Going through his stuff was a good reminder of life as unfinished business. I had always thought I’d continue some of his projects, but I have my own life. Emma and I started watching some of the DVDs he’d made of old family films, slides, photos, and videos. They are a treasure to have.

In the midst of all this clearing out, which resulted in two large donations to Vietnam Veterans of America, as well as several bags of books and movies to the local library, more books and craft materials to Emma’s school, several full recycle bins, and a backlog of trash (since I have the largest recycle bin the city provides, but the smallest trash bin), I was also repairing and replacing a lot of things that had been broken or damaged while we were away. Not to mention a year’s worth of yard work, getting rid of a massive fruit fly infestation, and dealing with the rodents that had moved into the crawlspace under the house. And getting us back on track with dentists and doctors now that we have insurance again. And I needed a new pair of glasses.

So the summer was consumed by the mundane tasks of home repair and maintenance, and the curation of our stuff (plus some fun trips to the beach and a day at Knott’s Berry Farm amusement park). I’m not done, but I have to get to work again. I leave for Mongolia on Tuesday to start teaching two courses at Mongolia International University. I will stay there for the first three weeks of the semester and then continue online while I start teaching at UCSD at the end of September. I only have one course at UCSD this semester, though I have to revamp it considerably (it’s on digital political economy and changes all the time). The MIU courses also needed redesigning to make them online courses. It’s the first time I am teaching online, though I have taken a few online courses, so I have some ideas as to how to proceed. Fall is going to be very busy, but somehow I’ll survive. Emma is a lot more self-sufficient than she used to be, and she can genuinely help around the house now.

Also, I’ll be going back to Mongolia without Emma. MIU starts up at the same time as her school here, so she will stay with friends and go to school. I will miss the first three weeks of her 8th grade year, but her school here is like family, so I am not worried about her, though I will miss her terribly. Ulaanbaatar won’t be the same without her. She and I have spent a lot of time together over the past year, and we have become very close. We go walking every evening, a tradition we started in Mongolia as soon as the weather and air pollution got good enough to do it in the spring. She also, uncharacteristically, came with me on every errand I ran this summer, as she had taken to going shopping with me in Mongolia as well. After she went to Colorado for six days in early August to visit her friend, we both realized that three and a half weeks apart was not going to be easy. We were apart for three weeks before, when Emma was nine and she went to Spain with friends in an informal school exchange I arranged with a Spanish colleague who was visiting San Diego with her son. So we’ve done this before. The time apart gives us both a chance to grow.

But, while I have some mixed feelings (more than once this summer I thought my plan to go back to Mongolia for even a few weeks was not the best; “It seemed like a good idea at the time” has become my mantra), I am thrilled to have the chance to be at MIU again. I have missed it. I have missed the students and my colleagues, and especially Gerelee, the Media and Communication department secretary. We had so many interesting conversations in our shared office. I have missed all of it. Well, except for the traffic and the air pollution. I’m looking forward to seeing everyone, and to walking in our old neighborhood, and to shopping in the supermarkets there. I am still not 100% sure of where I’ll be staying. I found a rental in an apartment hotel downtown, near the Hard Rock Café, but just two says ago Gerelee let me know that because of low enrolment, there may be a studio apartment available for me in the dorm. I’ll know on Monday, I hope. (I need to cancel the hotel reservation before I fly on Tuesday). Even with that up in the air, I feel more than ready to go back (though I haven’t packed yet; we’ll both be doing that today). I’ve even tricked myself, a couple of times, into thinking we’re going back for the year, and then I remember it’s just me and only a few weeks. Four weeks from today I’ll be waking up in our house in Carlsbad again, and going to pick Emma up from her friend’s house.

Just writing this post has been very helpful for putting everything in perspective. I had grown attached to being in our house again and was feeling reluctant to leave, but thinking about MIU and Ulaanbaatar again has made me happy, too. What had been feeling disruptive now feels like a restoration. I have a true home away from home, which is a good thing to have. (Actually, I have several, because Switzerland, where my mother was from, feels like home, and so does every place I’ve ever lived.) And soon enough we’ll be moving on from Carlsbad, anyway. Going to Mongolia taught us how to do that.

So, my readers, stay tuned for more posts from Mongolia. I am looking forward to resuming my writing practice, as well. It was hard to keep up the writing as my days were consumed with logistical and organizational challenges, readjusting to life in California (the driving! How I hate the driving!), and getting the house back in order. It was like moving without actually moving. But now the routine will be reestablished, and my early morning hours will no longer be spent unpacking boxes and upending drawers. Homeownership is far too time consuming; there is always something that needs fixing or cleaning. It’s not conducive to getting things done. I’m hoping that I took care of enough of it this summer that I’ll be able to coast for a while and write instead.

MIU as we left it in June

10 thoughts on “Heading back to Mongolia

  1. I know what a poignant and sometimes emotional journey it is sorting through the parent stuff. My brother and I did that in an intensive 3-day trip. It was a bit brutal, but also amazing with its fullness.

    Piper used to make up the stories with her animals, troll dolls, etc.. She still has them in storage and loves to look at them and remember. You might want to keep a few of the fondest ones if you haven’t given them all away.

    The difficulty of distance from our kids doesn’t go away! Soren’s in Africa for 3 and a half weeks. It’s only been a week and feels so long. Even though I don’t constantly see him where he lives at Stanford, I feel the thousands of
    miles. He’s having an amazing time though.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. They started out in Johannesburg, then went on to Zambia. He’ll also be in Rwanda and Uganda. His gf’s from East Africa. They’re visiting her dad in Zambia and seeing where she grew up and more. All for pleasure, before he presents his dissertation proposal and returns to research and teaching. It’s been kind of a hard time to be gone because classrooms are starting up implementing his research model, but the trip was already in place and he’s loving it.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Wishing you the best both for your visit to Mongolia and for your return home to Emma. Looking forward to more of your posts. And your book! 🙂
    Also, I feel you! –this for your comment about homeownership and the timeconsumig trap that it is. I couldn’t say why it didn’t hit me quite so hard before these last years. Time–ageing?–changes our perspective, or perhaps our capacities of dealing with stuff, I suppose.
    I was left with something of a positive vibe after reading about your clear out and about remembering your parents, if I may say so. Sometimes it help hearing it through other’s words too. So, thank you.
    Have a nice trip out, and enjoy your stay at Ulaanbaatar.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for reading and commenting! Yes, going through my parents’ things was much more pleasant now than it would have been even a few years ago. I can’t quite believe that I’m heading out tomorrow morning–I’d better finish packing!


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