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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October 13

October 13, 2012

If you follow my blog to hear about my life in Mongolia, I apologize for the continued interruptions; your scheduled programming should resume on a more regular basis next month. Bear with me, and you will understand why this month in general, and today in particular, have made that difficult.

Fall has always been my favorite season. It’s the season of sweaters and mulled cider, of apple picking and pumpkin pie, of crisp, sunny days and cold, clear nights. It’s when the trees dress up in their best and brightest in preparation for Halloween, my favorite holiday. It’s the season of my birthday, and also those of an aunt and three cousins – all within the space of a week! Every romantic relationship I’ve ever had has begun in the fall, and a great many friendships have started then too, as I meet new people with the start of each school year.

But it’s also a season of loss and death, and not just the metaphorical everything-dies-down-for-the-winter kind. October in particular is littered with dates of loss and unhappy memories, though they just barely stretch back into September as well. My paternal grandfather died on October 24, 2008; my maternal grandmother, on September 22, 2009; and this year, my paternal grandmother, on October 1. That’s a lot of loss in only a few years, and it makes each October more bittersweet than the last.

October 13 epitomizes that feeling for me. I’ve celebrated it one anniversary, and October 12 as another. But before it ever marked a beginning, it marked an ending. October 13, 2006 was the Friday before homecoming my junior year. That particular Friday the 13th delivered on its promised misfortune when two teenagers from my home town – one a high school senior, the other a graduate of the year before – got drunk and wrapped their car around a tree. The other passengers survived, but Ross Trace and Danny Bell did not.

We lost other current and former students in the next year, an alarming number of them, but none of those dates are imprinted on my psyche in quite the same this way. I know without consulting a calendar that October 13th fell on a Friday in 2006, a Monday in 2008, and a Thursday in 2011. I didn’t know Ross or Danny, had never even met them, but their loss affected me all the same. It was a wake-up call for all of us, the first time many of us had experienced the death, not of an elderly grandparent with a long life full of stories, but of someone just entering adulthood.

It was the reason that the following Monday was the quietest school day I’ve ever experienced, as we all stumbled in shock from one class to the next, too solemn and shaken to make the halls ring with the usual talk and laughter. It was why we had no homecoming parade that year, out of respect for the dead. And it was when the orchestra director’s usual pre-dance pep talk – “the most important thing is that you come back on Monday, and that you remember what happened” – stopped being funny. Two students didn’t come back that year, but the rest of us will always remember.


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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.


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Letting Go

            Insight comes to you unwelcome sometimes – times when all you want to do is push it aside so that you may carry on doing whatever it was you were trying to do. As I sat in my room today, surrounded by piles of objects that I know it will take me forever to sort through, I realized why I always find this seemingly-straightforward process so time consuming. It came to me as I picked up some of my old softball gear. My glove, a sliding pad, my batting gloves: relics of a life I no longer live. It’s been seven years now since my last game, and still these things sit on a shelf in my room. The pad went straight into a bag with all the other things I plan on donating; I’m not sure I ever used it anyway. My glove I set aside for games of catch with my cousins, or perhaps with children of my own someday. But then I picked up my batting gloves, paused for a minute, and set them down again.

            I should donate them; I don’t foresee myself needing them anytime soon – or ever again, really. But my breath caught with that realization. I played softball for six years, and while I never played it well, it was something I loved. I still miss the solid thwack of a good catch, the ring of bat on ball. How could I have given it up so easily? And now, as I sat here questioning my abandonment of the sport, could I just toss my gloves aside?

            My room is cluttered and full of stuff I no longer need or use. But every time I attempt to sort through it and get rid of things, I inevitably run back to my donate pile and put half of it back. I don’t need my batting gloves any more, or the plastic bracelets I wore as a child, or the blue sandals I’ve owned since middle school (though all of these still fit). I don’t need the many figurines I’ve collected over the years, of cats and wolves and deer and dolphins. And I certainly don’t need the dried maple leaves I collected during my last autumn at Miami – not even the one that says, in my handwriting, I am thankful for the wonderful friends and boyfriend who have made this such an awesome semester, or the one bearing a similar message in his.

            But these are in some cases all I have left of times when I was happy, of memories that lie buried until I stumble across these triggers. Getting rid of them is like severing my connection to those days, to those people. And so I hesitate. I dig figurines out of boxes and put books back on my shelves, the same way I hang onto phone numbers, Facebook friends, and Skype contacts – even though I flinch at the pain every time the names come up. I watch my parents’ favorite show on AMC with them, even though it means sitting through Mad Men previews that inevitably make me feel as though I’ve been punched in the gut.

            I know I need to let go of some of these things; I need to give myself room to sleep, to work. To live.

            But I don’t know how.


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le 26 mai: Des Léçons Appris en Faisent du Vélo à Beaune

Some of these were learned by trial and error today, and some at another date, but all were relevant to our day today.

  • Don’t try to order breakfast food from a brasserie at lunchtime, as it will take FOREVER. Long enough that you start to wonder if they’re out back collecting eggs for that quiche and waiting for your croissant dough to rise. If you want such things, go to a Boulanger, where they have them on hand all the time.
  • Any time my mother and I decide to go for a long bike ride, it will rain. Last time, we biked up to Lake Forest Beach from our house. It was HOT when we started, so we figured the rain would feel nice. We didn’t count on the rain dropping the temperature down into the fifties (or colder), and we ended up sitting in the bathrooms trying to dry off our clothes and borrowing sweatshirts from the lost and found for the way home. This time, at least, we were more prepared and outfitted with raincoats and quick-dry clothes.
  •  If the weather forecast calls for a 60% chance of rain, don’t go with your original plans and hope that there’s more than a 40% chance that it won’t.
  • When choosing a raincoat, make sure the hood a) can be tightened so it stays up in the wind generated, say, by biking, and b) does not flop down into your face, obscuring your vision to an absurd and unsafe degree. This will allow you to actually WEAR said hood while biking, keeping you warmer and preventing you from looking like a drowned rat.
  • When the guy at the bike rental place offers you a helmet, take it. Especially if it has a visor, as this will help to keep the rain out of your face.
  • Know that rental bikes are crap, and you will likely end up with a bike that  has no shocks, a seat that pitches you forward, handlebars  that aren’t meant for the racer crouch the seat wants to force you into, brakes that make an alarming crunching sound, and a front wheel that hits your feet when you try to turn, severely limiting your ability to do so.
  • Don’t stop halfway up a hill to wait for your mother. If you find yourself stopped with more climbing to do, find downhill or at least flat spot where you can start and gain a little momentum before heading back up the road. ANYTHING is better than trying to start up a muddy hill from a dead stop. (Told you, Mom.)
  •  DO NOT try to brake and turn at the same time on a wet, muddy road (knew this one already, but was rather abruptly reminded of it). Brake BEFORE that sharp turn at the bottom of the hill with a stone wall  on the downhill side, and after, if you still have to.
  • DO NOT try to brake too quickly while going downhill on said wet, muddy roads, especially if thy are not level (which they are not). Even if you are not turning, that back wheel will skid out from under you if it gets locked up, because the road is banked.
  • DO NOT sharply call out for your daughter, who is riding in front of you, to stop, causing her to brake too quickly and start to skid.
  • When you reach a fork in the road with a cross, behind which you can see that the sky up ahead is dark and tempestuous, while that behind you is reasonably clear, listen to your mother and take it as a sign from God to turn back. (I wanted to go on to the next little town/vineyard/whatever it was that we could see up ahead, despite the ominous rumblings of thunder. We got to the top of the hill, at which point I realized that the clouds where coming on much faster than I had anticipated, and it started to rain. So we turned back.)

  • If you find that you are on one side of a small, old, European city, and your destination is at the other side, don’t try to go through it. The streets are likely made of cobblestone, and bikes and cobblestone do not get along. Even if you go slowly. I’ve never tried to use a jackhammer, but I imagine that it feels something like that. Remember that you are on a rental bike that does not have shocks, and this will make the cobblestone an even more inhospitable surface. Take the ring road around the city walls instead, even if Mom wants to cut through.
  • Don’t try to eat at a restaurant that appears to have only one staff member present. The poor man was waiter, bartender, and (if someone wanted an omelet or a croque-monsieur) cook, and he had a bout nine tables’ worth of people.
  • There is always time for ice cream. Especially sorbet de cassis (black currants).
  • Check when the trains back to Dijon run before you leave the station for the day—and check when the desk closes. Chances are, the ticket machines don’t like American credit cards and you don’t have 16 euros in coins.
  • Don’t despair if you can’t buy a ticket for a short ride on the TGV. They might not even check to see if you have one.