A house is just a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff.
— George Carlin, A Place for My Stuff
I’m sitting in my room listening to the hum of the refrigerator as it cycles on and off. It’s steady, quiet, calming. But maybe, I realize now, also a little…indulgent.
Let me step back. About a month ago, a friend told me she was reading Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering & Organizing. I of course, have never met a self-help book I didn’t like, so was immediately intrigued. You might be asking: How could a Peace Corps volunteer—who moved to Mongolia with just two suitcases into a ten-by-twenty-foot room—possibly benefit from such a book? You’d be surprised.
For a full two weeks in November, I not only devoured the book, I kondoed the hell out of my home. It’s mystifying how much I’d been able to accumulate in just eighteen months. Notebooks and markers and dishes and books and clothes. Some of it purchased in Mongolia, some of it shipped from the States. Some I loved and was using, some was just collecting dust on shelves. After sorting items as the KonMari method instructs, considering each individually to ask, ‘Does it spark joy?’ (don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it) I’d estimate I was able to pare my possessions down by a good fifteen to twenty percent. The majority of discarded items found new and better homes, with people who could really use them. And the space it’s freed for me has made a huge difference. I actually feel lighter, more organized. My home is less noisy, and so is my mind. The results really have been kind of magical.
Though maybe a bit too magical.
You see, it seems that in its wisdom, The Universe decided to do Marie Kondo one better. One evening, about two days after I’d finished de-cluttering, and as I was basking in the glow of my own self-satisfaction, I got this text:
Hi. Where are you? Are you home? My brother wants to take his frig.
Let’s go back again: When I moved into my home, there was this refrigerator. I was told it belonged to one of my teacher’s brothers, but that he wasn’t using it. As anyone might, I assumed it was on loan for the entire two years of my service, and no one said otherwise. But this is Mongolia, and if you’ve been following along you know: Things change.
It turns out the owner was moving into a new home and wanted to sell the refrigerator to generate some cash. Fair enough. I asked how much he wanted, figuring it couldn’t be that much for a fairly small, several-year-old frig. He suggested 500,000 tugriks (about $250). Nice try. Prices for beautiful, brand new refrigerators at the most expensive store in Bayankhongor start at around 570,000 tugriks. I might be from America but….
This was tough. When you earn 370,000 tugriks per month, purchasing a refrigerator for the remaining eight months of your service seems foolish. And yet going without a refrigerator for eight months is impossible. Right?
Well, actually….here are a few facts:
- Many families in Mongolia live without refrigerators. In the winter, ger-dwellers store food in their pings, small wooden sheds that attach to gers to help reduce the amount of cold air that gets in. Apartment-dwellers can store food on their balconies. But the rest of the year? Well, when I visited the countryside this summer, I ate dairy products that were kept, unrefrigerated, in buckets under a table. Meat from a freshly slaughtered goat was hung from the lattice walls of the ger, and later simply piled onto a cutting board in the open air. We ate from that meat for ten days and never got sick.
- And although it will change next year, Peace Corps Mongolia housing requirements do not currently mandate that local host agencies provide volunteers with refrigerators. Many volunteers either buy their own at the beginning of service with settling-in funds, or simply do without.
I chatted with a few friends and concluded that buying a new frig this close to close-of-service didn’t make sense. Consensus was that going without wouldn’t even be that difficult:
- Many of the foods I eat don’t require refrigeration at all: eggs don’t, oatmeal doesn’t, canned tuna doesn’t. It’s only after these foods are prepared, if not eaten right away, that they need to be chilled. I’ll just have to learn to make only the food I’m going to eat. Imagine.
- Also, while I might no longer have a refrigerator, you know who does? Grocery stores do, that’s who. And I pass about ten of them every day on my walk to and from school. Strategy #2: Become a daily shopper, buying only the fruits and vegetables I need for the next 24 hours. Sounds kind of European, actually. I’ll just pretend I live in a small, romantic Italian village somewhere….
- As far as meat and dairy, despite my summer experience, my plan would be: Just don’t eat them at home. I don’t have a balcony or a ping, so there’s really no place outside for me to store food that I don’t want to feed to local dogs. Though my friends and I did discuss the possibility of putting meat in a bag and tying it high up on the bars on my windows, the truth is, a) my summer-o-meat in the countryside seems to have tripped some sort of switch in my system and I’ve been eating a lot more meat-free meals ever since, and b) most days, I eat lunch in the school canteen or at an inexpensive guanz. Between that and the meals I prepare with friends at their homes, I have more (way more) access to meat and dairy than I need or even want. Really, this would be no big deal.
As it turned out, I only ended up going two weeks without a refrigerator. Thanks to Muugii, my awesome Peace Corps regional manager, and my equally awesome host family, the beauty pictured above was delivered to my home last Sunday, having been rescued from its former, sordid life vending ice cream in the mini-market next door. Merry Christmas to me!
But something radical happened in those two weeks—basically, almost nothing at all. Meaning, I barely noticed the refrigerator was gone. Yes, I changed a few habits. But I didn’t miss any foods. I’ll be honest, I would say I ate fewer vegetables because I got lazy about stopping at the store every single day. But the choice was always mine.
Ironically, the biggest thing I noticed was the loss of shelf space. More than its chilling power, I’d been using the refrigerator as storage for stuff: my soup pot and napkins and a few dry goods on top, more dry goods that didn’t actually require refrigeration inside the door. The soup pot went on the floor under a table, Mongolian style. The dry goods got piled onto my big cutting board and set on top of one of my stools. I had some overflow onto my desk at first and realized how much food I was simply storing versus actually getting around to eating. As I focused on eating what I had, instead of continually going out and replenishing my pantry (especially with ‘back-up’ items to ensure I’d never run out of anything—heaven forbid I should be caught one evening between the hours of 10 PM and 10 AM without access to garlic or oatmeal), I realized just how much I’d been over-buying. It took the full two weeks plus a few more days to work my way through the entire inventory. And I still have a half-bag of rice left.
The experience was like scales falling from my eyes. If I can live so easily without a refrigerator of all things, what, really, qualifies as a ‘necessity’ in life? The list is getting smaller every day.
A new freedom
For many months, I’ve lovingly referred to my little one-room home here in Bayankhongor as my monk’s cell. And lately, that’s seemed even more appropriate than ever. I’ve been thinking a lot about these words from Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain, as he described his entrance into the Abbey of Gethsemani monastery:
So Brother Matthew locked the gate behind me, and I was enclosed in the four walls of my new freedom.
There have been times during my Peace Corps service when I’ve flat-out daydreamed about the magical world of America. Try this with me, for example: think of any food you’d love to be eating at this moment. Pasta carbonara? Chicken tikka masala? Peruvian ceviche? I don’t care if it’s one in the afternoon or four in the morning. If there’s not a restaurant you can order it from (and probably have it delivered by), you can find a 24-hour supermarket and buy all the ingredients to make it yourself. Now, think of any other product or good you want: If you can’t go to a store to get it right this moment, you can most certainly order it online and probably have it in your hands within 24 hours.
We have so much access to everything in the States. And while I used to think this was divine, I’m now starting to wonder if maybe it’s its own sort of prison.
Because for as much as Peace Corps volunteers might love to bemoan all the things we miss about America, I have to say I’ve never felt as free, from a financial and temporal perspective, as I do in this country. Mongolia is making it undeniably clear to me that the things I think I need, that I absolutely have to have, absolutely can’t live without, are rarely ever as critical as I think.
I look back on the majority of my adult life, and consider all the decisions made on the assumption that they were. How many hours did I work to earn money to pay for things I probably could have simply let go? How much of my energy and even happiness did I sacrifice for things like 100 more TV channels that I don’t really watch, or a brand new computer because the one I have is two years old and ‘on its last legs,’ or can’t-possibly-walk-away-from gray suede Michael Kors ankle boots whose heels are so high that they’re really only good for sitting, never standing and certainly not walking?
Don’t get me wrong. I do love me some Michael Kors. And eating in restaurants that serve hand-made pasta and artisanal cheese. And notebooks made of Italian leather. And when I return to the States, I do plan to move into a place with hot and cold running water and an indoor shower. There’s nothing wrong with any of those things. But I can’t begin to tell you what it feels like to know that I can live—easily, beautifully even—without any of them.
Maybe having to pause between wanting something and getting it is a good thing. Maybe having to think, do I really want to spend twelve hours on a bus to UB to get it, or $100 to ship it from the States, isn’t so bad. Perhaps that lack of access is the only thing allowing me to truly examine what I’m willing to sacrifice in exchange for my consumption. The four walls of my new freedom indeed.
Try this at home
Here’s a challenge for those who are interested: Think of one thing in your life that you use every single day. Something you think you absolutely could never do without. And then lock it up somewhere for a week. Don’t use it at all. See what your experience is like, and if it’s as dramatic a loss as you initially imagined it to be. See what kind of MacGyver-esque workarounds you come up with, what new habits you form. See if it doesn’t create some changes that you actually like, rather than just the inconvenience you expect. If you take the challenge, I’d love to hear what happens, and for you to share about your experience either in the comments below or in a direct message to me.
In the meantime, another quick story:
Comically, a short time after I lost my refrigerator, my water boiler broke. I heat a lot of water in my home every day. Not only for drinking but also for washing and cleaning, as I don’t have hot water from the tap. When I moved in, I was given this great little appliance that not only boils water but also keeps it hot all day long. I loved that thing. It was perhaps my most used and useful possession and when it broke, my immediate thought was I’ll have to replace it. Another completely false assumption: My friend Dashka told me her mom had just had a small appliance fixed by a guy in the market. She helped me out, and 15,000 tugriks (or about $7.50) later, it was fixed.
But not before I’d gone three weeks without it. And during that time I made another incredible discovery. Wait for it, because I’m about to blow your mind here: Turns out, you can actually boil water in a pot, on the stove.