Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude.
― A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh
Spring has finally arrived in Bayankhongor. Last weekend for the first time in months, I was able to walk outside without a jacket, wearing tennis shoes instead of boots. My good friend Dashka invited me to join her eleventh grade class on a trip to Shargaljuut—a soum about three hours outside the aimag center—where the parents of one of her students had gifted us a whole sheep. They prepared us a traditional khorkhog (meat and vegetables pressure-cooked with hot stones over a fire) and we spent the day relaxing and picnicking on the grass along the river. The sun was out and glorious, as it almost always is in Mongolia, and as it also was on my very first day in this country.
I’ve started a few of my blog posts with the phrase, ‘It’s hard to believe that….’ Each time it’s been in conjunction with a milestone that at the time seemed particularly momentous. And this time is no exception…
It’s hard to believe that on Sunday, I’ll have been in Mongolia an entire year.
My Peace Corps journey actually began more than three years ago. It was in March, 2012, when on a lark I decided to leave work early one day and drive to the Lake Hills library for a Peace Corps information session. My relationship of more than sixteen years had just come to a very gentle but definite end. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I’d felt restless at work for some time. I was ready to loosen my grip on some of the things—my job, my home, my relationships—that had defined me and given me security for nearly twenty years. But why Peace Corps? I don’t know; it just sounded right. Meaningful. Would it actually be right? I had no idea.
I remember looking at the application thinking that in fact, this was quite possibly the dumbest idea I’d ever had: Two years out of the traditional workforce, mid-career. How would I swing it financially and who exactly did I expect to hire me when I got back? Twenty-seven months living in a developing country. Could I hack the physical challenges? What about the emotional strain of being away from friends and family? And then there was the idea of being an ‘older volunteer.’ The prospect of being forty-something, and thinking I could fit in with a group of twenty-somethings for two years sounded delusional—more isolated than living in a thatched hut in the South Pacific with neither running water nor electricity. There was the possibility that I was signing up to do both. Like I said, dumbest idea ever.
But it’s just an application, I thought. Application doesn’t equal commitment. And so I applied.
When I got my nomination six months later (for a teaching position in a yet-to-be-disclosed country that I think was Vanuatu), it started to feel a little real, a little exciting. I didn’t worry that I still hadn’t answered any of my original questions. It’s just a nomination, I told myself. Nomination is not invitation. Nomination doesn’t mean quitting my job and giving up all of my income to live alone in a remote part of the world where no one speaks my language—not yet anyway. And so I accepted the nomination.
Nine months later, I finally received my invitation, not to Vanuatu but to Mongolia. It stressed (as had just about every other document I’d ever received from Peace Corps) that the Peace Corps volunteer term is 27 months: three months of pre-service training, followed by two full years of service once you’re sworn in. Peace Corps asks you to carefully consider this, and before accepting the invitation, to be sure you’re ready to commit to the full term. But here’s my dirty little secret: I’d managed to answer many of the questions I’d had regarding my ability to serve. But I never got to sure. I was you know, cautiously optimistic. Reasonably confident. As hopeful as one could be. But never, under any circumstance or stretch of the imagination, was I ever 100% certain. I accepted the invitation anyway.
Maybe we don’t tell Peace Corps this, but I told myself, this is not the Army. I’ll just get myself to Mongolia and get through pre-service training. After that, if I’ve not already gone home, I’ll get through the next 24 months the same way I got through the application process: one step at a time. One quarter, one month, one day at a time, whatever it takes. And if at any point I’m completely miserable, or simply decide it’s not for me, I’ll leave.
(Of course, my brother had another idea: ‘You have to make it at least a year,’ he said, almost off-handedly. He probably doesn’t remember that conversation, but I’ve thought about it every one of these nearly 365 days.)
And somehow, remarkably, here we are.
In the beginning, I imagined that if I’d made it to this point, I’d have all this wisdom to share on my blog. Topics I figured I’d be qualified to address included: How to overcome physical adversity, cultural blunders, emotional stress, all in the service of a greater good. How to master a language (ha!) and make a home-away-from-home. How to stop fighting with yourself. How to benefit yourself and others by simply letting your freak flag fly.
But I can’t do that. Not quite yet.
First of all, at this stage, you wouldn’t be getting your money’s worth. Because as much as I’ve been able to blog here and post to Facebook about how amazing these past twelve months have been—about the hospitality of the people and the joy of working with my adorable kids, and the language and the food and the celebrations, and the very, very funny things that happen every day—I’m still far from having this experience figured out. It hasn’t been as difficult as I first thought it would be (electricity, clean water, and the internet help), and it’s been filled with more joy than I could ever hope for. But to be sure, I still struggle. I have days when I think I’m kicking ass and absolutely loving it here, and then I have days when I think I have to go home. Right now.
More importantly, though, I can’t focus this blog post on dispensing faux wisdom, because to do so would be to miss the point of what I believe my first year in Mongolia has truly been teaching me: How to trust in the extraordinary goodness of people.
It started even before I boarded the plane to come here. The number of you who came out to see me off—at dinners and parties and brunches and coffees—and to wish me well on my journey, still confounds me. I remember thinking how difficult it would be to leave everyone behind. But what’s been even more staggering has been how so many of you have actually come along with me. My parents call me every weekend, without fail. A dear friend agreed to move into my home so I could afford this two-year odyssey. Others of you find time in what I can only imagine to be desperate schedules, to send e-mail or letters, packages with magazines you know I’ll like….or peanut butter. Others have been Facebook champions, paying attention to everything I post, lending financial support to projects I’m working on, or just putting up comments that make me laugh on even my toughest days. You will never know how much it all means to me. (Please don’t stop. 🙂 )
And then there are the people in Mongolia, most specifically my host family in Selenge and the teachers and students of Bayankhongor, who seem to have all but adopted me. Who’ve cooked for me and taught me to do laundry here. Who’ve made sure I’ve never spent a Mongolian holiday alone. Who constantly ask if I’m too cold or too hot, and run errands with me when my language isn’t strong enough to get things done by myself. Who come to my office just to hang out, or to smile and say hi. Kids who are so undeterred by the fact that I don’t understand them, that they keep trying—over and over and over again—to speak Mongolian slowly and clearly enough that I can.
Although it’s spring now, I keep thinking about something that happened at last winter’s ice festival. Unlike the kids who’ve grown up here, who can tear across the frozen river at top speed, while dribbling basketballs no less, I knew I had to be careful. I knew I had to walk (shuffle, really) ever so slowly, lest I slip on the ice. But sure enough, not three steps from the bank, I missed a trick and fell, straight back, flat on my ass. Instantly, five of my teachers bolted out from the tent behind me. Before I’d even processed what had happened, they’d lifted me onto my feet and were furiously brushing the snow and dirt from my coat and pants. Two minutes later, it was as if I’d never fallen at all. Nothing was going to happen to me that day—not on their watch.
And then there are my fellow PCVs. Those twenty-somethings with whom I feared I’d feel so alone and out of place. Man, was I ever wrong about them. They’re perhaps the ones who’ve surprised me most of all, with not only their smarts and their humor and inclusiveness and kindness, but also with the sheer courage they have to connect with one another, and with me, and to tell the truth about how they’re doing in both good times and bad. As someone who’s not always the best at asking for help when I need it (because, you know, the first rule of fight club is you do not talk about fight club), I have much to learn from them.
So on Sunday, my 365th day in Mongolia, I’ll be reflecting on how afraid I once was of feeling alone in this country. But how, instead of having to leave one family to come here, I’ve somehow ended up with three. May each of you feel blessed ten times over with the love and care you’ve shown to me. I simply could not survive here without you. And like Piglet, I’m astounded by the large amount of Gratitude that one Very Small Heart can hold.