Everywhere But Home

News and musings from wherever my crazy life takes me. My body may be back in Illinois, but at least for now, my mind is still in Mongolia.


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A New Key to the Floodgates

I’ve been told that I make an unusual number of associations between songs and the circumstances in which I heard them, or that I let these memories have too great a hold on me. Whether the extent to which I do so is unusual I can’t rightly say, but it’s certainly true that I strongly link music and memories.

I’ve never “had a song” with any of my ex-boyfriends, per se, but every guy I’ve dated or even had a long-standing crush on has a few songs that I associate with him. “Cowboy, Take Me Away” and “Would You Go With Me” remind me of one; “Teenage Dream” (the Boyce Avenue cover) and “White Blank Page” another. My first roommate has a song (“My Life Would Suck Without You”), as does the camp at which I’ve spent at least part of the past four summers (“Wagon Wheel”).

Sometimes, the songs even trigger specific memories; the last Dixie Chicks album calls to mind the college visit to Boulder during  which my mother and I listened to the CD on repeat. And because I was also reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams at the time, the three are somehow inextricably linked; the Dixie Chicks are the soundtrack to that book, whether I’m actually listening to them at the time or not, and playing the album inevitably calls to mind images of mountains and our old neighborhood in Denver.

I’m sure there are scores of psychology papers documenting and analyzing this phenomenon, but I haven’t read them. All I know is that certain songs have the power either to leave me basking in the glow of happy memories or devastated by my current distance from them. Some could go other way, depending on the other emotional influences at play.

The Playlist of Exes is one I know well, and I can gauge whether certain scones will buy or depress me on a given day and shape my listening habits accordingly. But I hadn’t realized that category of music might have similar effects on me.

An ex of mine, like many of my friends, was perpetually shocked by my lack of musical knowledge – my inability to name most of the biggest rock bands of the past 40 years, to recognize what songs were by AC/DC or Led Zeppelin. But the simple fact is that I didn’t grow up listening to a lot of classic rock. My father favored Sting and Coldplay; my mother, a mix of Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Heart, and Bonnie Raitt.

As a child, I never gave much thought to my parents’ music or the way it might have shaped my own musical tastes; it was just background noise, something I heard regularly and without question. But when I went away to college, I found myself missing the music I had grown up listening to. It started as a vague, unidentified longing, and it was a long time before I learned to place it. But in the fall of my sophomore year, I heard a Bonnnie Raitt song on the radio, and the realization came crashing down. I raided my parents’ CD collection on my next trip home and made trips to the library to expand my Bonnie Raitt and Patty Griffin collections.

With the exception of Patty’s music, without which I would surely lose my sanity, most of what I obtained from my parents remains buried in the rarely-explored depths of my music collection. But a recent taste for Billy Joel and a subsequent Genius playlist brought several of my parents’ favorite artists together. As I sat, listening, I found myself hit with a sudden and inexorable tide of emotion. I was hard-pressed to name which emotion, exactly; it mixed melancholy and nostalgia and longing in ways I haven’t felt since the day of my grandmother’s far-off funeral. It left me open and reeling, vulnerable, so that the later appearance of a song that reminded me of an ex threatened to reduce me to a weepy puddle of mush. I fought the tears I felt prickling at the corners of my eyes; I was at work, and my (shared) office was no place for an emotional meltdown.

I won that battle, but I still eyed iTunes with suspicion for the rest of the day. How could it ambush me like that? What other songs might I need to be wary of? (Anything that played regularly on WXRT during the early 2000s, apparently). A song or two in isolation I can handle, and many of them I’ve grown to enjoy on their own terms, rather than because I grew up listening to them. I always liked Sting’s “Russians,” but it’s particularly poignant now that I have a military brother stationed not too far from a nation threatening to go ballistic. But put too much of this stuff together, especially if you mix both parents’ musical tastes, and I’m useless.

Expats, repast, and other readers – is music an emotional trigger for you too? Are there songs that make you homesick? Is it the vaguely nostalgic, man-I-want-a-real-hamburger kind, or the more crippling kind that leaves you huddled in a corner? How do you handle these associations, and what do you do when they catch you unawares? Enquiring minds want to know.

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Boiling Over

They warn us that will happen to all of us eventually. That within a few months, our fascination with the culture in which we’ve immersed ourselves will wane, and we’ll be suddenly disenchanted and homesick.

I’ve hit that point.

I know that my feelings are misdirected. That the reason all the minor frustrations I’ve been living with have suddenly turned into a knot of anger in my chest and explosion of unwanted tears has little to do with Mongolia itself. It’s because I’m here, about as far across the globe from Chicago as it’s possible to go, when right now the place I should be—need to be—is at home with my family. I can deal with missing birthdays and Thanksgiving and Christmas. It’s hard not to be there when the rest of my family is together, but I can at least Skype in, and they will happen again. Not being able to attend my grandmother’s funeral and wake, though—that’s different. I’m stuck here, on the other side of the world, when all I want to do is go home to celebrate her life with everyone else, and wish her goodbye.

But it’s hard to keep that frustration from boiling over into the rest of my life here. So at the moment, I’m not just frustrated by the differences between Mongolia and America; I hate them.

I hate not being able to talk to any of my coworkers.

I that I can’t even go to the post office on my own, because I need someone to explain why they won’t sell me a ticket.

I hate not knowing what my roommate means when she says “all teachers go out now” – whether we’re going to a restaurant or a camp or some other place from which we won’t return for hours, or just out to the front of the school for some kind of assembly.

I hate missing the assembly congratulating this or that teacher for getting married and looking like some schmuck who isn’t happy for him.

Even more, I hate I’m probably better off missing it because I’d just feel out of place and wouldn’t understand anything.

I hate that the teachers don’t bother to tell me that we’re having an assembly and I therefore will not be having a lesson for the teachers.

I hate missing the chance to leave for the weekend earlier because no one bothered to tell me that plans had changed.

I hate wanting to vote conscientiously and not being able to because I can’t find anything other financial information about the non-presidential candidates on most sites, and the sites that offer more detailed information refusing to load.

I hate that my Mongolian teacher’s idea of a lesson is presenting me with a list of words and phrases to memorize, when what I need from her is speaking practice and activities that make the words stick.

Next week, I’m sure my anger will subside. I will appreciate the surreal blue of the sky and go hiking in the nearby mountains and roll my eyes resignedly when I arrive at work only to be told I didn’t need to come. Next week, I will reapply myself to my language lessons and talk to the delguur lady and ask Namuunaa when we can visit her family again.

But this week, I just want to be home.


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Rest in Peace

October hath struck again. My grandmother had a stroke last night and died in her sleep. A peaceful way to go, at least, so I’m grateful for that. But she is the third grandparent I’ve lost in five years, all of them in late September or October. She was also the last grandparent I had still living. And of those three, she is the first whose funeral I won’t be able to attend.

I wish more than anything that I could be there right now. Funerals are important. Grandpa’s wake was an all-day affair; it was a party, a celebration of his life that helped to balance the bitterness of the actual burial.  A gust of wind blew the picture board right off its stand at Gram’s funeral. I only ever knew her as a snowbird, but she had lived in many places earlier in her life, including Germany, Japan, and I don’t even know how many states. Now, we knew, she was off on her next adventure. I won’t have those kinds of memories this time. I won’t have a rose from the funeral, to dry and keep on my desk.

Nor will I return to my room to find that my roommate and friends have covered my wall with notecards and my desk with colored pumpkins, as I did freshman year. The pumpkins are long gone, of course, but the notecards have gone on the wall of every dorm and apartment I have lived in since then, including this one. I am immensely glad to have them now. Thank you, Kristin, and Corry, for love that I can hang on my walls no matter where I go.

I never really contemplated this possibility, when I decided to leave the country for a year – that my grandmother might not be there when I got back. Given the number of doctors she’s had for the last few years, I probably should have. There’s a reason I don’t throw away her cards – haven’t for the last few years, in fact. But it never really occurred to me that our hug a few days before I left was the last I’d ever give her.

I don’t even fully remember where we were, either, whether we went back to Granny’s after dinner that night or just said goodbye in the parking lot. But if it’s the latter, it’s still a fitting place for a last goodbye. My last memory of my grandfather is at Riggio’s, too; he was hitting on the waitress, much to the amusement of everyone (including Granny). After four years apart, they’ve been reunited.

During my junior year of college, I contemplated doing a writing project on my grandmother’s life. I had realized that I knew next to nothing about it. I don’t know any stories about her childhood, or even most of her adult life. The patitsa we’ve had at a couple of family gatherings and the accent my aunts and uncles adopt when imitating Granny’s mother are the only traces left of her Slovenian ancestry. In the end, I decided against that project, consolidating my work so that I could use the same book for projects in three different classes at once. I Put aside my questions about my grandmother’s life, figuring that I would ask them later.

But I never did, and I guess now I never will.