Kris Paronto, former Dixie alumni, Army Ranger and Blackwater Contractor spoke to a packed auditorium at Dixie State in St. George. I checked my son out of school for the noontime lecture and went early (to get a good seat), and sat waaaay in the back, next to those who were left standing. A self-described skinny guy, he took the stage, looked around and asked if Mr. Jolly was present. Mr. Jolly was one of his former football coaches; he said he had the shakes just thinking about him. To think of this former Ranger as getting nervous about anyone made us laugh and settle right down into our seats for what proved to be a warm and memorable conversation.
His humor infused his hour long narrative as he candidly related the events of the “13 Hours” he fought off Libyan attackers while rescuing 20 U.S. State Department employees in Benghazi. Those “13 Hours,” became the title of a book and major motion picture, which Kris said is extremely accurate. Hearing him speak, listening to his version of events was eye opening and at times unexpected, but central to his message was this…even in the midst of tragedy, there is beauty and moments where you feel God.
Like the moment when they finally arrived at the consulate and ran across the grass to get to the building; the green grass was the most vivid green he’d ever seen. And the flames burning from the explosions, there was no way to describe how bright and beautiful the orange fire appeared. Despite the chaos around them, his senses were heightened and colors became extremely intense–part of the memories he can’t forget.
And then there was the moment when he was out in the open, taking fire and knelt down to shoot his weapon. Bullets whizzed by his ears, snapping sounds, artillery breaking the sound barrier, but he wasn’t afraid. He knew he wasn’t going to get hit. It was as though a little golden bubble of protection surrounded him. He felt God was keeping him safe.
When you go into battle or face any kind of challenge, you have to have faith, you have to believe you will succeed, that God is looking out for you. And you have to know that whatever happens, if you live or if you die, that is the plan.
Kris should have gone home weeks before Benghazi ever happened. His contract had ended. He extended to be there with the rest of his team, a group of 40-somethings he described as the best, most highly trained, professional group of contractors he’d ever had the pleasure to work with. He trusted them. He knew what they were thinking at any given moment and vice versa. They were brothers. If not for this group of men, he said, things in Benghazi could have turned out very differently.
People ask him a lot of questions these days. They always want to know what it feels like to shoot another person. He said, “First of all, you don’t shoot unless they’re shooting at you and you know they’re not friendly. But when you take fire and shoot back, it’s just like being back in Colorado,” he said, “shooting prairie dogs. That’s all you’re doing. Then later, you think about it.” But Kris didn’t take body counts. That wasn’t his way. He didn’t want to shoot anybody. “Nobody respects human life more than someone who has to take a life,” he said. They all just wanted to stay alive.
One of the toughest moments of the entire 13 hours occurred at the end of battle, when he witnessed two of his fallen comrades rolled to the edge of a roof and dropped to the ground and after, loaded into the back of a truck. It wasn’t how he wanted things handled. Kris said he would have lowered them to the ground with a rope, but D team did it their way. Loved ones back home were told the bodies were handled with extreme care. They didn’t know. A year later when they questioned him and wanted to know the truth he told them just how things went. It was hard for them to hear and difficult for him to say, but they appreciated knowing.
Even when things might upset people…and they’re hard to say, say them. Tell the truth. It makes you a better person.
Have faith. Believe in God. Believe in yourself. Trust in yourself. Trust God. Be courageous. These were the phrases that kept repeating. There was humor too. Like when he retold how they escorted State Department workers out of the building into the cars. They were about to get into the vehicles, when workers remembered there was still classified information back in the consulate. They ran like crazy to go back and collect the thumb drives and hard drives and when they got back to the vehicle and tossed everything into the trunk, one of them said, “It looks like we just robbed Best Buy,” and Kris said, “You’re just sayin’ that ‘cause I’m Mexican.”
During war you think it’s all seriousness and every moment is some intense manly driven focus to kill, but that’s not what it’s like. There are times when you say funny things or joke because these are your buddies. You’re not some machine. You’re human.
Kris and his team members risked their lives to rescue 20 U.S. State Department Employees, fought off Libyan attacks in two waves of battle that lasted 13 hours, watched friends die, were essentially rescued by a Libyan Militia (not their own U.S. Forces), and when they got to the airport had to convince a Libyan military jet to fly them out of the country. You can imagine the difficulty Kris faced afterwards, feeling as though his country had abandoned them. Questioning the patriotism of those he thought he could trust, he struggled with his personal life, even thought about committing suicide. It wasn’t until he talked with his pastor and began talking to groups, setting the record straight, that he felt he had a duty to himself and to others; he felt he had a purpose. Talking to veterans and everyday people he saw how much they cared, and that gave him hope and something to live for.
Part of setting the record straight was letting people know they tried to get the Ambassador out. During the rescue they couldn’t find him. He died of smoke inhalation and was taken by the Libyans. Later, the body was returned and Kris inspected Ambassador Stevens and saw he was not tortured or sodomized, as some media outlets purported. He wanted to let us know.
His speech opened with an edited clip of the movie and ended with Kris thanking us for being there. We were riveted from start to finish. Standing before us was a hero, telling us he was average and just doing his job. That’s highly debatable, given that his commanding officer told him, and all the other Blackwater contractors, to “Stand down.” But they went in anyway. Knowing the risks.
Nothing that morning had indicated anything would be different or out of the ordinary from any other night. They were just going about their normal routines. They’d said to the State Department months earlier, seeing how unprotected they were, “If you ever need help call us,” and gave them a radio. That night they got the call and they made good on their offer. They drove to the consulate and because of gunfire, were forced to stop with 400 meters to go. So they proceeded on foot, scaling walls, weaving through dangerous alleyways to rescue their friends. They didn’t have to be there, they were under no obligation or contract to defend the consulate; but they went anyway.
Kris didn’t enter into the politics of the situation (I was hoping he would). I still would like answers. I still think the truth is hiding in destroyed emails and interoffice black holes. In 2012 we moved to Sweden and the Embassy began installing a new steel fence, the posts were several feet taller, sharper and further removed from the building than the previous one. There was a lot of talk about security. There were a lot of new perspectives after Benghazi.
Kris’ speech didn’t have an angle to prove anyone right or wrong. He did want to make clear, that the men who stood by his side in battle that night were willing to give of their lives, and some did, to protect others. They were great men and there was something to be said too for unlikely allies—they would not have survived without the Libyan Militia. There were moments of reflection during the long siege. At one point he wondered….will I ever see my wife and kids again? He said, “You put that aside and just keep believing, because you’ve got to believe.”
Kris became a Blackwater employee when the Army wouldn’t let him serve anymore because he had Crohn’s disease. Blackwater was his lucky break with a health history that wouldn’t allow him to do what he wanted to do, serve his country. As it turned out, God really did have a plan for Kris and you might even say Crohn’s was part of it. Because of his unlikely path, he was where he needed to be at the moment some very desperate people needed him. For me, Kris’ story is more than the events of that fateful night, it’s about trusting that God has a plan and that whatever you’re facing, it’s for a reason. There’s no doubt about it, Kris was the right man for the job. He answered the call. He did what he was prepared to do. He never stopped believing.
I was at Target on a weekday afternoon, there to buy essentials mind you, and the parking lot was packed. I had to park next to Buffalo Wild Wings. And walk!! The place was more crowded than at Christmas! What in the world were all these people buying? Didn’t most of us just overfill stockings and line the floor beneath our Christmas trees with badly wrapped presents? And TJMaxx was the same. Folks weren’t in line making returns either; they were buying MORE. More of what? What did we all need so desperately? As for myself I NEEDED of a trio of gold framed decorative mirrors to hang on my bedroom wall.
Wait up… did I just write a trio of decorative mirrors? I did…didn’t I.
This need vs. wants thing is getting complicated. In Sweden, life was so much simpler. For one thing, I usually couldn’t find what I wanted to buy. There were no Targets or Wal-marts nor aisles of Star Wars memorabilia in the grocery store. If I needed maroon tights or hangers or a spool of blue ribbon, I’d go to a shop where they sold those types of things. It could take days to track down items to the point of deciding I was better off getting rid of some clothes then buying more hangers, or wearing another color of tights or forgoing ribbons on packages.
Things in Sweden were rarely on sale either, rabbat. If there was a pair of shoes or a nice handbag, the cost was always 2-3 times higher than what I’d pay in the U.S. Which meant I’d usually wait to buy it when I was home visiting. Wait. Delay action. Postpone till a later date. Pause.
Nowadays, I have no reason to wait for anything. Target knows me so well; they put things I NEED at the end of aisles; I don’t even have to go looking for them. It’s like they know me better than I know myself.
Compared to Sweden, we have plenty of space in our closets. Of course, in Sweden we had no closets. It’s not that unusual really, most Europeans don’t. They have wardrobes, like the kind of thing you might walk into trying to get to Narnia. They don’t hold much, but they hold enough. The limited space forces you to pare down what you don’t need and prevents you from buying more. Wear what you’ve got until it wears out. There’s a foreign concept.
But walk in closets in ‘Merica, now we’re talking. There are virtually no limits. You can quite easily tuck in an extra shirt or pair of pants and forget it’s even there, until months later when you discover it hanging with the tags on. (The good news is I have a red sweater waiting for next Christmas.)
The problem with consumerism is that it’s consuming. It consumes money, naturally, but time too. Not just the shopping but also the wanting, the time it takes to price compare, hunt down the item, search online or drive here and there. The feeling behind the process is that you’re incomplete, you’re not enough, you need more. (And more is still never enough.)
What if for one month, you said, enough is enough and took a break from consumerism? Imagine what a consumer hiatus could do for your life? It would free up time and energy, leaving you available for other pursuits. Like Bob’s prescription in the movie, What About Bob, his psychiatrist tells him to take a vacation from his problems and it transforms his life, (and the psychiatrist’s, but that’s another story.)
In Sweden I was invited to the birthday party of friend turning 40. It was a lovely soiree, filled with accomplished women seated at three long banquet tables. Toward the end of the evening, the host and birthday girl, asked us each to stand and share one decision we’d made for the coming year–something to inspire us to make positive changes.
I can’t remember what I shared, but I’ll never forget what the woman seated next me said when she stood up. She said she decided for one entire year not to buy any new clothing. (Say what?!) She wasn’t going to buy new shoes or work clothes or accessories, and instead use what she already had. “Sometimes buying more doesn’t make you happy,” she spoke softly. There was a vague reference, if I recall correctly, to how clothing gets manufactured in third world countries, or maybe that is just my memory adding things. In any case, she was absolutely heroic in my eyes and more daring than the rest of us. I clapped enthusiastically as she took her seat while the women at the table (now on their second and third glasses of wine), looked nonplussed. To be fair, it was 2 am in the morning.
Telling people you’re not going to shop isn’t exactly a bandwagon anyone else wants to jump on. It sounds rather dull, in fact. But it can be liberating. Nothing to buy, nothing to consume yourself with… extra time means more time for the gym, that bike ride, posting a blog….
I’m guessing Marianne Williamson, who writes a lot of books (some of them Oprah reads), must not be spending lots of time in malls. She’s too busy writing about joy and gratitude. She penned this tidbit; “Joy is what happens to us when we allow ourselves to recognize how good things really are.”
Things ARE good, aren’t they?! We don’t always see how good they are when we’re out looking for more. What if we replaced that next shopping trip to Target and did ‘x,y or z’ instead? Free up space for the things that matter. (And leave a parking space for those who really need to buy essentials.)
These last few months I haven’t spent much time blogging, I’ve still been settling in, getting things arranged. Building a life in a new place. I decided to give a little time and attention to myself, make a doctor’s appointment, and get the “full work up.” It’s been a while and I’m past 40 and from here on out, I’m told, you want a good doctor. Naturally, it took an appointment to make an appointment. I had to get “established” first, that’s doctor speak for pay twice. Then the doctor ordered a bunch of blood tests since I’d been having some weird symptoms. Every week or so, I’d feel terrible, like the worst flu of my life. Joint pain, headache, high fever and trouble breathing. Since I enjoy breathing, I thought it warranted some checking into after I got established (you’re a nobody until you’re established).
They prodded my veins and tested me for Lyme, Rocky Mountain Fever, Parvo and a few auto immunes, for good measure. What do you know, Parvo turned up? Of all things, the one virus I neither suspected nor had a clue what it was.
Turns out animals get Parvo and can die from the virus. Humans get it too, although I’ve never met another living soul with it. But in case you’ve got some weird symptoms and feel like you might die, just know, like most things in life, there’s not a darn thing you can do about it and it lasts six weeks.
When I told a friend’s mother I had Parvo she said, “That’s what dogs get,” then leaned closer and asked with a grin, “Are you a B?” Her question, and my friend’s raised eyebrows, made me smile. This brightly dressed older lady was a spunky sort, out on the town with her oxygen tank in tow, and a cute haircut. A fighter, I suspect. A grandma who has been there and done that and has had to overcome a few things too. I love those grandmas. And yeah, I am tough. I looked Parvo in the eye and said, not this December, I’ve got way to much to do.
I’m happy to say I’m Parvo free now and loving life. No more joint attacks or sudden urges to crawl into bed and never get out. And that’s a good thing because New Year’s is on the way and so is my annual Christmas clean up I look forward to every January 1st. After a month of garland, lights and well, clutter, okay, I said it, maybe I don’t need four Santa’s standing in my living room; I get OCD. Thing is, this year I heard about Dillard’s “Everything 50% off Sale” on January 1st, which kind of throws a wrench in my plan. It all started today while browsing in the makeup department. A bored saleslady cornered me and gave me the scoop–told me I needed a strategy. Be there at 8:30, (store opens at 9), and get in position at one of three entry doors, (she pointed them out like a seasoned flight attendant). “You’ve got to BE READY TO RUN,” she said.
“Run?” I asked.
“RUN,” she nodded, “you’ve got to run to the item you want before everyone else gets there.”
She advised me to have a couple of friends come along, to help try and grab the item, (mentally I’m seeing the year of the Cabbage Patch stampede, folks wrestling doll babies, people getting smacked down with handbags—I’m thinking are we really going back there?). Her eyes spoke complete seriousness. “Have a friend stand in line. It will take a good 45-minutes at the cashier. FYI the limit for purses is six per person,” and looking at Maggie she solemnly added, “It’s not a place you want to bring children.”
I’m ready to leave but she has more.
“There are shoe people and purse people and clothes people and Christmas ornament people. You’ve got to know what you want.” With a crazed look in her eye she whispers, “The Christmas ornaments go fast.” Then with more head nodding she points to herself, “I’m one of those people.”
I thank her for the info and head fast to Barnes and Noble, cause I’m one of THOSE people.
I’m torn now, stay at home and do my annual Christmas clean up or risk stampede?
But that’s a question for another day…my boys are paintballing somewhere in the hills of St. George; Maggie is contentedly “shopping,” with her friend in the living room, playing store with Christmas presents they can “buy” all over again. And this long overdue blog post is done. Mama is going to sip her tea with her feet on the furniture and read her new book, “What Alice Forgot.” Merry Christmas to me. And Merry Christmas to you!
(artwork by Maggie Grace)
It almost feels normal, making dinner, driving kids to school, hosting back yard gatherings, taking care of the routine and mundane “to-do lists” of the day, until the moment I remember…my husband is in Iraq. He’s in Iraq.
It’s just me, and the kids and this house and life happening so fast. At those moments my thoughts splinter. I’m traveling at light speed to where Cooper is, only I’ve never been to Iraq, so my imagination is a Fox News version of the Middle East, an urban desert landscape where men with long beards and zealot’s eyes chant, “Death to America.” I think of the Christian’s being killed, girls kidnapped and raped, children who can’t walk the streets safely. The headlines of the day ticker tape through my mind in a series of jolting images that makes me question what kind of world do I live in?
And then my six-year-old says, “Mom, I need a snack.” It is after school and she is hungry. I gaze at her dimpled cheeks and dark eyes and I am present again, putting carrot sticks and ranch on a plate with Babybel cheese and crackers, arranging a silly face that never fails to make her smile. We sit at the table and I pour myself a cup of rooibos tea and instead of getting on my phone to check the latest updates, I watch her and we talk.
She tells me who was coughing at school and who upset the teacher. She tells me she played freeze dance and her best friend Kennedy* copied all her dance moves and that is the BEST Kennedy HAS EVER DANCED! She tells me she likes getting hot lunch and doesn’t want me to pack anymore, but says it in a way that I can tell she’s trying not to hurt my feelings. I am swept up in our conversation and forget I need to take Jonah to soccer, right now. I also need to change the laundry so I can get sheets back on our beds, before I’m too exhausted.
We drive to soccer and Maggie brings her scooter. While Jonah is at practice we go to the nearby park and for the next hour try to step on one another’s shadows and make obstacle courses. We could have gone home. I could have made dinner. But I think to myself, Wendy’s is close by, Dave can do the cooking.
After an hour we’re too cold to play outside. Jonah still has thirty minutes of practice so we sit in the car and wait for him to finish. There’s an IPad on the back seat, but it’s not charged. So we talk. “Since our country has freedom, why don’t they give us free Wi-Fi?” Maggie wants to know. She also wants to know if I’ve bought her a stuffed Olaf yet and if I’m going to get her one for Christmas since she’s been wanting it “forever.” She finds the Sour Patch Gum she thought she lost in the pocket of the chair and puts two sticks in her mouth and chews loudly. I ask, “Does that sound bother you?” And she replies, “Maybe it would if you were making it.” I tell her no more gum until we’re out of the car.
Jonah finishes practice and he’s cold. His ears hurt. He’s forgotten how to dress for cold weather since we left Sweden. He still wears t-shirts and shorts as if it’s 115-degrees outside, but the weather has changed and when the sun goes down it’s freezing.
We drive to Wendy’s. I tell the voice asking for my order in the Drive-through that I haven’t been to a Wendy’s in over ten years. I don’t think they believe me. And “Do you still have baked potatoes on the menu?” I ask. The voice says they do and I order one with broccoli and bacon and sour cream. I also get a half-size Chicken Pecan Salad that I hope tastes as good as the picture. Jonah wants the “Son of a Baconator” and a frosty. Micah texts, wrestling is over, he wants the same. Maggie’s happy with a hamburger but not apples, she wants fries.
Twenty-eight dollars and I’ve got dinner and no dishes. We pick up Micah from the high school. Our car smells like fries and I wonder how many days it will take to dissipate. When we arrive home we go to the table with our five paper bags and eat on plates and pass the ketchup and talk about our day. It’s fast food but we don’t eat fast, except for Jonah, who still needs to shower before I take him to Boy Scouts.
At 7:00 pm I’m back in the car yelling, “Jonah, come on.” He’s gelling his hair—it takes longer these days. I am patient. I sit in the car and check Facebook. The picture I posted of my parents on Veteran’s Day is getting lots of likes. They look handsome, young and beautiful and at the start of the lives. It’s 1951 and my dad is in Indiana with the Pennsylvania National Guard. Soon he will be shipping off to Korea and later Vietnam. Did they know then that he would serve his country in the Army and Air Force for 24 years, I wonder?
I was born the year he retired, in 1972. I never moved anywhere. I didn’t know that life, or that fathers were gone from home for years at a time. But looking at their picture now, thinking of Cooper in Iraq–the years we’ve spent apart–I know what it means. I’ve seen this photo my whole life, and yet it’s like I’m seeing it now for the first time.
Strangely, I feel reassured. I see their life, and the trajectory of my own, playing out. This photo marks their beginning. I’m just somewhere in the middle. They had difficult times and so do I, but they became who they are because of their sacrifice, not in spite of it. Married now for over 65 years, I hope I can do the same.
Jonah gets in the car. “I’m ready, put away your phone. Let’s go,” he jokingly orders. I take a deep breath and pull out of the driveway, onto the suburban streets. The sidewalk, in front of each home, is lined with flags. The sight of so many flags waving, red, white and blue, makes me proud. Even as I miss Cooper and wish he were here, I’m grateful he’s serving our country. I drop Jonah off at Scouts. He’s working on the orienteering merit badge. Orienteering began in Sweden. He’s already learned the skills they’re teaching tonight, but I’m not worried about him reading maps. I want him to learn another kind of orienteering—a compass for life, the Scout Oath. “On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and country [and] to help other people at all times.”
Back at home, I pull sheets from the dryer and make our beds. I feel grateful for clean sheets, for warm beds, for children to tuck in, for a country where we are free. We can sleep well tonight. It’s been a day of reflection and a chance to remember those whom we should never forget. I hug my kids just a little longer after family prayers and tell them, this one is for dad.
* means the name has been changed
The boxes arrived, all five hundred and twenty of them, over 18,000 lbs. I stood on my front porch watching as the truck pulled up, the flatbed carrying a dozen wooden crates—containers that had sailed halfway around the world from Sweden to California, via train to Salt Lake and finally to St. George. Inside were all our worldly possessions: family mementos, photos, Maggie’s favorite stuffies, our piano, books that felt more like friends.
Before this day arrived I’d pictured myself feeling overwhelmed, watching movers hoist boxes onto dollies, sweat on my brow, checking boxes off lists while simultaneously directing movers where to put what. In my imagined scenario I needed at least three of me, but that would mean a sequel to Multiplicity and no one needs that.
Unpacking is exponentially more difficult than packing. The mind gets boggled sifting through years of nostalgia while the rational brain tries to organize what feels like a 10,000 piece puzzle that’s been dumped onto the carpet (with one piece missing). It’s like playing Sudoku in the dark on a hayride with a hand tied behind your back—not impossible, but almost.
And yet, my sci-fi nightmare did not come to pass. No, I wasn’t alone. Thanks be to God for good neighbors. The retired couple who lives across the street came over when they saw my predicament and together they checked off boxes, removed bubble wrap from my furniture and unpacked, freeing me to direct the movers and get things organized.
After hours of work I figured they’d have other things to do, go home, get lunch, tell me to call if I needed anything else–that would have been reasonable. But they stayed the entire day and came back the next TWO days until all the boxes were delivered and most of them empty and hauled away! Not only that, but another neighbor had us all over for dinner that first night—the best enchiladas I’ve ever tasted. And the next night another neighbor, brought dinner to us, one of those comfort dishes that reminds you of your childhood. And still a friend from down the street, who moved from PA and settled in just before we arrived, dropped off frozen yogurt one evening for the kids and I.
Here I’d been ready to stress out and feel overwhelmed. I’d braced myself for the worst, but the worst never came. Thanks to neighbors and kindnesses too numerous to count, unpacking became, dare I say, enjoyable. My house was put together in record time and a week later, with my art hung mind you, I was hosting a bridal shower for 40 people. If you would’ve told me I never would have believed you, but it did happen—a true story of angels and friends.
But wait…there’s more…during that same week my in-laws came and grandpa built shelves in the garage with my boys while grandma spent the day entertaining Miss Maggie. That same day my sister-in-law dropped off a crock-pot of chili, which fed us for two days. And when shelves arrived via Fed Ex from Wayfair (love their stuff), my brother-in-law came over and helped Micah put them together.
The move in was like one of those Amish barn raisings, minus the barn. Helping hands doing what each could do…we went from living in St. George to being “home.” It was miraculous, biblical, Red Sea kind of parting stuff. They say how one person can make a difference and it sounds coined and trite, but NO REALLY, one person can make a difference. They can change the world! They changed my world. It was a week of grace and blessings and it came right in the nick of time. (Click here if you want to read a guest blog post I wrote for more about what happened BEFORE the move.) The only problem is, with neighbors this good, I never want to move again. Here’s to being “home at last” and to being the kind of neighbor we all want to have. Maybe we can’t solve the world’s problems but we can help a neighbor. If we each do what we can do, we might see a different kind of world.
It’s been four months since packing up and moving back from Sweden and we’re STILL waiting for our household shipment to arrive. I’ve got patio furniture set up in our living room and sleeping mats on the bedroom floors. We look like a KOA campsite only with really nice bathrooms. I miss my toothbrush holder; I miss my paper towel holder for the kitchen—it never let the roll get soggy or unravel on the counter. I miss things being organized. I miss hangers. Sure I can go out and buy all that stuff, but then what do I do when it arrives? It’s the conundrum of moving every couple of years…how long can I hold out without an iron and ironing board? How many irons does one person need in a lifetime? A lot if you live this lifestyle.
I keep thinking I’ll feel more settled once my stuff gets here, once I’m able to have some wardrobe choices and bikes to ride and Maggie has her toys to play with again. But I’m not convinced that will be the sum total of getting “settled.” Having your stuff helps, but the process also just takes time. I need to get reacquainted with America after our long-distance relationship kept us out of sync.
I’m adjusting to driving in America again. In the past three weeks I’ve successfully racked up three traffic tickets…one for speeding, one for following too closely, and one for switching lanes too fast. You’ve got to stay in each lane for approximately 2 seconds before moving over (now they tell me). Let me be clear, I’m an excellent driver. I got the Driver’s Ed award in high school, a fact that was mortifying, but nonetheless impressive. I KNOW how to drive, it’s just here cops actually pull you over and give you tickets for breaking the rules. (I miss Sweden.) And this S P A C E thing, there’s a whole different need for space in America. People like their space. They need room around them AND their cars and everything else. I get it, I just forgot.
It’s the same way at school. In Maggie’s class, the teacher has to remind the children NOT to hug and to give others “their space.” One mother told me her daughter was sent home with a note asking her to “Please talk to your daughter about not hugging other children.” Six-year-olds are very European. They show affection freely and like to embrace their friends. Hugging is one of those things that come naturally to children, so naturally that teachers must teach children to unlearn the behavior. It’s fascinating, really, to witness just how much culture our children absorb by unlearning and learning in America. (I think that’s another blog post.)
There are ways and traditions that once practiced are hard to change. Like giving flowers to someone who has invited you over to their home. In Sweden you’d never arrive at someone’s house empty handed, but twice I’ve given flowers to people who have reacted with mild shock. It’s not “typically” what’s done so people don’t know what to say or they say too much. In Sweden flowers were appreciated, but never cause for a scene.
The most challenging part of getting reacquainted, has been keeping up with the pace of life in America. Life moves faster in these Fifty United States. We’re all driving. There’s no time to sit on the public train and read. We’re driving kids to school, driving to pick up dinner, driving to work. The drive-through lane at Starbucks is packed. People don’t have time to sit and chat and enjoy their drink, they need to get it on the go and get to the next thing.
I joined a yoga studio thinking I might meet some people, people who were a little more chill and relaxed, after all, yoga is all about taking time for yourself and deep breathing. Uh-ah, nope. Unlike in Sweden, where the instructor allowed for a five-minute resting period (called Shavasana) at the end of class, followed by everyone saying “Namaste” to each other and lingering to chit-chat. Here, after an intense 55-minute workout the instructor says “Namaste,” so folks can get up and leave if they want during the resting period.
America, you can’t rest!! Seriously. Sit for sixty seconds will you? Just relax. Chill. Hug someone.
I’ve always said when I move to a foreign country, “Don’t judge, it’s just different, not wrong.” That little phrase helped me navigate the unfamiliar ways of locals around the world. But I’m finding I need the same phrase here, in my own country. And maybe that is who we’ve become…a nation filled with different people who do things differently. And that’s okay, I’m not judging, I’m just trying to figure it out so I don’t get another traffic ticket or hug someone who doesn’t want to be hugged or find myself the last one lying on the yoga floor studio after everyone has packed up and left Shavasana. I’ll figure you out America…just give me some time and a hug.
Had I written this post last week the tone would have been cynical and jaded. I would have had comments like, “Hang in there,” or “You’re doing better than you think” and the whole thing would have been reduced to an Amanda Wilkinson song, “It’s Okay To Cry.”
But cynicism wears old. I get tired of being frustrated with frustrating people. You know what I mean? It takes too much energy. I don’t have that kind of time.
Although, lately I have had time. It seems since Cooper left I got two extra months added into the last two weeks. I don’t know how it happened, but somehow I managed to fit 60 days into 14. Go figure. This year might be my slowest lived yet.
But two months lived in two weeks can do incredible things for a person. I’ve been able to gain new perspectives. Move forward. Forgive. (Time heals all wounds.)
I’m not harboring hateful feelings anymore toward the football coach who told me on the phone, “I don’t have time for development.” I called it coaching, but we had a difference of opinion. He explained that he’s got his “core team of players” who’ve been in the game for six years. Six years! Wow. I had no idea my son was too old at twelve to be taught the nuances of wearing molded polycarbonate padding and hitting into other players. The short story: We turned in the pads and went with soccer.
I’m only disappointed because here was an opportunity for Jonah to be a part of a team, learn integrity and the idea that you never give up. But the coach gave up on a National Championship winning rugby player from Sweden and instead of making him feel like a part of something worth striving for, he taught him to quit before you even start because some things aren’t for everyone. Well thank you. It was a loss of one kind and a gain of another. Winner of this round: Life Experience. ‘Cause life isn’t about fitting in, it’s about figuring out…figuring out who you are and who you’re going to be when the odds are stacked against you. If you can win on the gridiron of life then you will go undefeated.
And as for Maggie’s teacher, I’m over that too. I realize that some people in St. George don’t get our lifestyle, the fact that Maggie, at six years of age, has already lived in four U.S. States and three years in Sweden. It doesn’t make sense for some people. So when her teacher informed me that Maggie couldn’t participate in the class party celebrating the kids who did the summer reading/math packet, I calmly explained our situation, the fact that we weren’t here, that we were moving, that Maggie would be deeply disappointed to be excluded and sent to another classroom while all her friends were eating muffins and watching a movie. And when it looked as though things still might not go in our favor, I even threw in her dad was in Iraq. Now if that doesn’t play on your heartstrings!
“But did she do math and reading everyday this summer for twenty minutes?” was the teacher’s only response to my plea.
Umm…did you not just hear any of what I just said? She’s six. Her dad is in Iraq. We were moving. She’s new and has no friends.
Her final offer: “Write a note stating that she did math and reading everyday for twenty minutes and she can attend the party.”
Dumbfounded, I went home and wrote the note.
There comes a point when you just gotta do what you gotta do. And anyways, packet be darned, I read to her. We got a library card. I taught her what a quarter is and how to insert it into a gumball machine—that’s math! The important thing is, she went to the party. Not moving from Sweden, not her dad being gone, not our life circumstances are going to keep her from enjoying life and having a party.
Because if we’re talking math, then how about adding this up…life is hard and that equals we all need a little celebrating. Can’t we ease up and instead of excluding someone, say, come on, you’re invited, and you’re worth a party. That’s all I was trying to say. Maybe the message was lost on the teacher, but as for Maggie, she enjoyed every minute of her celebration.
Amada Wilkinson, we’ll dry our tears, we’ll hang in there; I know we’re doing better than we think. But you said it…it’s okay to cry.
At five am I woke to the sounds of Maggie crying. She’d had a bad dream. I went to her room, held her tight and whispered a prayer in her ear. Seconds later she was sound asleep, clutching her white kitten “stuffy,” the Frozen blanket pulled up to her waist. I retreated to my bed where I laid back down and watched the ceiling fan revolve along with my thoughts. I mapped out the sequence of my day, what I would do first, then next, then after that.
I didn’t have long to think because I had to get Micah to Cross-Country practice by 6 am. When we left the house it was still dark, the hint of sun on the mountains. We drove in silence and I left him with a goodbye and an… I love you. He was tired, but determined.
I drove straightway home. It was time to pack lunches and get Jonah off to the bus. The bus comes everyday at 7:02. It’s never late. He has to hurry. Jonah comes into the kitchen slowly. His back hurts. He can’t manage to sit properly at the breakfast table. I set an ibuprofen next to his omelet and orange juice, “You’ll feel better soon,” I say and it goes like this…
Him: We’re not doing anything important today; I should stay home and rest.
Me: It’s school picture day.
Him: Like I said, were not doing anything important.
My mother intuition tells me this isn’t just about his back, his symptoms include the pain of fitting into a new school, making friends and doing the tough work of adjusting. (It’s awkward no matter who you are in 7th grade.) I give him my best “buck up” speech and leave him to his breakfast. I have to wake Maggie and get Micah from track.
Reluctantly, Maggie climbs into the car wearing pajamas and a single sock, her kitten still in her arms. “I’m hungry,” she says. “We’ll get breakfast as soon as we get home,” I say.
I drive down our hill, the sun painting a rosy-purple ombre above the mountains. We arrive at Micah’s track and with windows rolled down, watch him jog into view. “Come on Micah! I’ve been waiting for you and I’m hungry!” Maggie shouts. It’s what every teen needs, a precocious little sister.
He gets in the front seat, sweaty but energized, “Great job Micah!” I say, just before my cellphone rings.
It’s Jonah. “I missed the bus.” I drive home, calculating how I can get everyone to school on time, my morning sequence unraveling. I walk in the door and Jonah is laid out on the floor, “My back hurts.” This instead of ‘I’m sorry.’
I look at my six-year-old, her hair pancaked to one side, her glasses slightly askew. “Can you get your own breakfast and dress and comb your hair and brush your teeth so I can get your brother to school on time?”
She stares at me.
“You can put your own whip cream on the peaches.” (She loves to pile the Redi-whip in giant swirls.)
It’s a deal.
I drive out of the garage with Jonah, the third trip this morning. The light of day is a piercing glare. I drive him as close as I can to the front door of the school and watch him exit. “Do you have your lunch box?” I ask.
“I think so,” he says.
“It’s not a subjective question. Either you have it or you don’t. Can you check?”
He looks at me with a grin, “I’ve got it.”
He’s also got a lot of nerve and tenacity and someday it will serve him well but today it’s about all I can take.
I drive home, pull into the garage and look at the time. Ten minutes. It’s all we have before we need to be out the door again. Maggie is upstairs in her room, thankfully dressed. “Did you eat?” I ask her.
“Yes,” she beams, whip cream still at the corners of her mouth.
We brush teeth. Comb hair. Check the time. We have to go. We HAVE TO GO right now or the drop off lane to her school will be packed with stressed out parents who hate drop off as much as I do. “Micah,” I call, “we’ve got to go!”
It’s my fourth trip out of the garage and it’s not even 8 am. We drop Micah off first then flip a U-ie past the same mud encrusted Jeep I see every morning at his school, red dirt so thick I can’t tell the actual color of the car. Seniors.
I continue west, the sun illuminating the landscape of palms, desert plants and red mountains. I’m driving through what feels like Jurassic Park and for a second I forget I have to be anywhere at all. It’s beautiful and mesmerizing and then I arrive at the elementary and am jolted back into reality. Kids and cars are in commotion, the elderly crossing guard is telling everyone to have a great day as a child bolts from the front doors of the school crying—he doesn’t want to go. I hold Maggie’s hand and navigate the chaos.
We walk down the hall to math class and before she even hangs her backpack on the hook, a chorus of kids at her table shout, “Maggie!!” They’re so happy to see her and I’ve never been so glad for 1st grade enthusiasm. God bless, she has friends! She’s smiles and waves goodbye, but before I go I remind, “Don’t forget, you’re a ‘walker. Meet me at the flag pole.’” Over her spectacles she gives me a disappointed glance.
The thing is, she wants to stay in ‘Blue Zone’ with the kids that get picked up via car. It’s complete pandemonium, (read: extreme fun for kids). In the Blue Zone teachers spray you with water to stay cool (since afternoon temperatures range from 95-115 degrees). However, the Blue Zone is in the center of the rear parking lot, and the process of picking her up requires me to wait in a long line trailing down the street, edging up as slow as snails on parade. It takes about twenty minutes and when one does miraculously reach the zone, the teachers have to find your child while everyone waits. It’s one of those terrible plans that someone thought of and no one wanted to say, “That’s a terrible plan!”
As a ‘walker’ I can park at the nearby church and meet Maggie out front. It’s almost stress free and one less anxiety-provoking episode to deplete my very short-on-funds-bank-account-of-sanity.
With drop off complete, I head home. I have to meet a repairman then pick up salt for the water softener, pay fees for Micah’s Driver’s Ed, and if I’m lucky, wash the breakfast dishes. I turn on the radio. It’s the news. I quickly change the station. I listened to the news the day before and was in tears by the time I pulled into the garage…sea lions having seizures from eating shellfish, birds and other mammals suffering amnesia, flying into walls…what does it mean for humans? the broadcaster wanted to know. I turn to The Pulse on XM radio. Imagine Dragons is playing “I Bet My Life.”
I know I took the path that you would never want for me.
My thoughts drift to Cooper in Iraq. It’s not the path I wanted, me here, him there, me taking care of the kids, him thousands of miles and a world away, but I bet my life on him and on us. I bet my life. That’s pretty much everything. I look out at the blazing sun climbing into the haze, the ever-present mountains ahead. I have sun; I have another day to possibly nurture something better in this world. I have frustration and joy. I have sadness and humor and the sound of Cooper’s laughter in my head, telling me…you got this. Living is sacred work…school pick ups, making omelets, brushing teeth, knowing when to offer silence and when to give words, saying…I love you. We are the mystery unfolding. I don’t know how any of this will end, but I’m grateful to be here and part of this story where each day is…to be continued.
It was a harrowing trip from Stockholm to Frankfurt to Denver to St. George Utah. It was long and cramped and the show selections on United were as bad as the overcooked tortellini. Sixteen hours of travel time got us only so far as Denver, ugh! Then we had to go through customs. I was flying with Maggie and Jonah and between the three of us we somehow managed to haul 6 suitcases from baggage claim to the United Ticket counter then go through security again, disposing of our overpriced airport water.
When we reached our third and final gate we sat down in some chairs to wait out our 4-hour layover. Jonah’s last words to me, “I don’t think I’ll even sleep.” Three and a half hours later when it was time to board, neither child could be roused. They were bent at odd angles, laying on backpacks and rigid airport chairs, far in dreamland. I said to Jonah, “Wake up,” and gave him a little shake. One eye popped open, the other squinting, then I turned to Maggie, “Wake up.” She was comatose. I turned back to Jonah. He was slumped in his chair again, head back, mouth agape. This went on for several minutes until finally I snapped, “Let’s go!” I said, a little too loud, pulling them from their chairs, dragging them to the gate.
They shuffled like zombies down the runway, their knees too exhausted to bend. They boarded the small jet engine plane and immediately fell into a deep Sleeping Beauty incapacitated state of rest. I haven’t had to buckle Jonah into a seat belt since he was three, but I fastened him in alongside Maggie, then sank into my aisle chair. A dazed numb feeling buzzed through my head but the faint happiness of knowing the answer to, “Are we there yet?” made me smile. “Yes! We’re almost there.”
When we arrived in St. George my in-laws were waiting to pick us up. My sister-in-law and her husband grabbed our suitcases and everyone lent a hand with the sleepy children. It was the best reception possible. I didn’t have to think. I just got in the car and they drove us to our hotel. From that point on these last few weeks have a blur.
We moved into our house with suitcases and air mattresses. We’re “camping” until our things arrive. Since being back in the US Maggie and I have also flown to PA to see my family. At one point Maggie asked, “Are we over our jet lag yet?” My new saying, “It’s 8:00 somewhere in the world.” It helps me greet the day no matter what hour we wake up.
We’re back in St. George now and everyday begins with a To-Do list. Get driver’s license, register for school, get mail key, call about recycling, choose which floor sample to install, buy toilet bowl brushes and on and on. It’s deja vu only it’s not. I’ve done this before–moving/settling–but it’s a whole new experience here. The desert heat is a game changer. When you’re not used to it your body has to adapt. I’m way more thirsty, I wear sunscreen all the time (not just for the pool), sunglasses are a must. Here in St. George there are pest control companies on every city block (for a reason). We’ve already had the exterminator spray four times. Ants, roaches, black widows…Oh My! I fell like Dorothy, far from the familiar, but sensing that this place, for now, is exactly where I need to be.
Still it’s hard sometimes. Being new. Saying hi to strangers. Introducing myself, over and over, telling my story, who I am and why I moved to St. George Utah. “Sweden, huh, really?” they say. Sometimes I’m confused too. Why again am I doing this? There’s a lot of friendly people in the world, it’s just takes time to make some of them your friends. It’s like getting a job. It’s hard to get the position when you don’t have previous experience, but how do you get experience?
The answer is you stick around. You smile when you don’t feel like it, you talk to everyone and see who talks back. It’s luck of the draw and drawing your luck. And in the meantime you appreciate more of what you’ve got, where you’ve been and the ones you often take for granted–family. “Family” are the people who are always there when you need them.
St. George is an environment of extremes. Extreme temperatures, extreme beauty. The red rock is other worldly. It’s like walking on Mars every morning. Up in the hills I’ve discovered my happy place. It’s where I can go when I want to feel everything is as it should be. Looking down from up above life looks small and manageable, and problems don’t feel so large. For right now I’m glad to be where I am. If anyone asks, “Are we there yet?” I’m going to say, “Yes.”
It’s move time. The truck is in my driveway and all heck is breaking loose. I expect this. I’ve been through this drill before. I’m familiar with stress and worry, fatigue and frustration. What I didn’t expect was the Unknown to come waltzing through my front door, grab hold of my shoulders and yell: “ARE YOU READY FOR THIS?? YOUR WORLD IS ABOUT TO CHANGE!!” The Unknown is sneaky like that. It will wait until you sit to eat your Subway sandwich while the movers are on smoke break and leap out of nowhere to unnerve and frighten you.
But what you’ve got to remember is that the Unknown doesn’t know any more than you do. It’s all talk, all of it.
Keep doing what you’re doing, that’s what I’ve learned. Take comfort in being busy. It’s not a bad thing to have too much on your to do list when you’re going through epic change. Work is the antidote for most dreadful things. The laundry and dishes are tedious until you have things to worry about, then it’s nice to have a dish in the sink, clothes to fold, beds to make, just to keep moving.
When your life is in bubble wrap and the TV is in cardboard, there’s nothing to tune into except for yourself–time for a little one-to-one with your unconscious. If you haven’t had much time for yourself, well then, you may have some listening to do. What are you saying these days…deep down there in your cavernous soul?
A friend shared this with me…
“If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the moment.” –Lao Tzu
Where ARE you living these days? If you’re going through a change of address, I get it, life can be confusing.
Moving is a strange time. For that matter, ANY major life change is a strange time. Change will mess with your identity. Take away the external—your house, your job, your relationship, your address—and what’s left?
YOU! That’s what!
All that other stuff?
You is where you’re standing right now—that very small bit of real estate you see when you smile in the mirror. And You can do this this.
DragonForce wrote our anthem…We Are The Heros of Our Time. We don’t need to bend metal, read minds or shape shift—although that would be cool. It’s enough to stare down the Unknown and say "Not today. Not on my watch." Wrestle with this beast and come out a winner, you deserve the Gold. You are a hero.
I’ve got suitcases in each bedroom, a thousand pounds of stuff for the air shipment in the dining room, laundry to be folded in the baskets, a freezer to clean out. The Unknown is hunting me down at every turn, but I’m onto its tricks. I’ve defeated this villain before. The Unknown can’t do anything it hasn’t already done but just as well, it’s good to be busy keeping the enemy at bay.