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.
I’m not sure when the saying “Dream Big,” became a thing…when we started printing it in chalkboard font on sentiment signs to hang on our bedroom, bathroom and living room walls. It was after the gold rush and sometime before the Selfie Stick, but within the last half century. It’s the idea that we need more; that we should be reaching for the stars (so we can at least land on the moon). But the quest for living large is just that, a quest, a never-ending pursuit of bigger and better and larger and larger living and here’s the kicker—it won’t make you happy. You might as well put up a kitty poster, because at least that will make you laugh.
People who put up signs to remind them to go for the good life, probably already have the good life, they just don’t know it.
On our recent trip to Norway I had a life altering, game changing experience that drove home this point home quite clearly to my slow-on-the-up-take-sub-conscious, that is to say, to live small is to dream big. If it sounds contradictory it’s only because we’ve been conditioned to believe otherwise. I assure you, nothing could be more in harmony than to embrace the fullness of the life you already have, to savor the thousands of moments time is gifting you already. We all like gifts and since your life is a present; each moment you get to unwrap a part of it. Meaning-full experiences are well within your reach right NOW. To live small is to encompass all that you are in the present most fullest sense of the word without trying to be artificially BIGGER and better. Let me explain…
In Norway I met a woman who lives on the island of Skjerjehamn. Population: 6. That’s right. Six people total, two preschoolers and a few adults. Her main job is to greet the tour boat twice a day (in spring and summer), to welcome a handful of tourists ashore that want to see what life is like on an island. Included in the package tour, written in the brochures we’re all holding, is the assurance we will be feed waffles and coffee—and believe you me, we wanted those waffles. She counted us up, all 15 of us, and told us to relax in the garden while she prepared our food.
Some sat, others strolled, taking in the 360-degree ocean views, wondering to ourselves…how do people actually live like this? The experience was surreal, probably because most of us never dreamed of living on a relatively obscure island miles away from the nearest town. And yet, being there, seeing this incredible sight, ranks up with the most incredible places I’ve ever been, Sistine Chapel included. I’m walking along the island breathing in the ocean air, soaking up the sunshine while my kids rush up and down mossy rocks playing chase in the grass. They discover jellyfish and algae in the water and Maggie finds a swing that entertains her as much as a new app. We eat waffles and I’m thinking they must serve these in heaven because they’re so amazing with a touch of cardamom. I glance at my watch, time is ticking. We’re in the most idealic setting we’ve ever seen and we have forty-five minutes to enjoy it.
The boat doesn’t wait for anyone, we were warned, so we head back to the dock. Before leaving, I thank the woman for hosting us. In her sky blue eyes I search for a way to ask her the question that I can’t stop thinking…how do you live here, how do you exist in this place without freeways and fast tracks and worries about getting ahead and having more, don’t you want more? But I don’t ask her that, instead I say, “How do people around here grocery shop?”
She laughs. She doesn’t have a “Dream Big” sign in her home, but she meets people all the time who do, people who must ask her the same thing everyday. “Well,” she says, “people have large refrigerators and when they shop they get what they need for a long time.”
I nod my head, as if I understand completely. And I think on those words for the next several days and I realize she’s given me the answer to my real question. You get what you need when you need it and otherwise you occupy your life, you don’t want for more, you enjoy what you have—the good life. As she leads us back to the dock, she tells us they’re hosting a party that night. Several boats will be coming in from around the “fjord community” to celebrate with dinner and dancing till 1 o’clock in the morning as part of National Day. Can you imagine…dinner on an island, dancing under the stars?
One more question, I ask, “How did you come to live on this island?”
Her blue eyes are sparkling now as she tucks a strand of strawberry blond hair behind her ear and says, “My boyfriend is a cook at the restaurant. There’s a small bed and breakfast,” she points to the nearby distance, “and that is where he works.”
“Oh,” I say, smiling now. Love doesn’t need more of an explanation.
As our boat pulls away I looked back and marvel at how small and yet vast the island seems. As we ferry along, we encounter a hundred or more homes just like hers, tucked away in the mountainous fjords, built on impossible cliffs and isolated stretches only accessible by boat. I wonder how life is lived between waterfalls…nestled in fervent green hills, the ocean occupying your front yard. I don’t imagine anyone living there has a sentiment sign on their wall that reads “Dream Big.” They must know they’re already living a dream.
Women, like the one I met on the island, are courageous. They’re not front and center of social media. They don’t need endless “likes” to feel good about their choices. They simply live and like who they are. There’s nothing wrong with promoting yourself or getting a million views on utube, but it’s equally as valid to live quieter, off the grid, in a way that is both authentic and freeing.
It’s okay to want more, so long as you know you’re enough already.
The good life isn’t about reaching for the stars; it’s grasping the glory that they shine for you.
It’s knowing that this entire world, all of it, is created for you as you are right now. You can choose more or less. But it takes courage to choose less because so often we think we need more. It takes a strong identity and a keen inner voice to let go of what others think and be yourself.
“Do you really want to be happy? You can begin by being appreciative of who you are and what you’ve got.” –The Tao of Pooh
Six weeks. That’s how much time we have left until we move. I know the drill. I know.
I’ve been here before, but it still doesn’t seem real. And it won’t. I know.
Not until I get on the plane and look down over Stockholm, to where I lived for the last three years, and listen to the flight attendant instruct us on where to find the exits and how to put on the oxygen masks in case of an emergency. Everything will look calm, but my heart will be in a state of emergency. If someone could just please put on my oxygen mask, I’ll be looking out my window, hands pressed to the plexiglass, wondering how it all happened, how three years came and went so fast.
Deep breath. I knew it would go fast. I knew.
The moment I said “Hello” for the first time and told them where I was from and asked if they spoke English (they all spoke English), I knew one day I’d say good-bye. I knew it way back then, that all those hellos would turn into good-byes. But I let my heart take hold anyway, because friendship is what sustains us.
Even if that friendship lasts three years or three days or three minutes, I’m grateful because every person that walks with me on my journey has something to teach me. (To the friend that sat with me on the plane and told me about the layout of Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, thank you, thank YOU, I made my connection.)
C.S. Lewis said, “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art…It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.”
When we leave Sweden there will be five of us, and ten suitcases. One family member short of when we arrived. Malachi left for his mission to Indiana in November. He already said his good-byes. He writes home every week. Stories that make me so proud I could burst and stories that cause my hand to occasionally fly up over my mouth…robbed on Easter Sunday, bike stolen, camera taken, apartment ransacked, a man tried to run us over with his car, an episode that ended with police arresting the man at gunpoint…a crazy world, a crazy world. That is where I’ve sent my son, into a crazy world.
But he has friends. “Mom,” he writes, “I love being here. I love helping people. This is so much fun. God is great. God loves everyone. I meet so many good people” He’s going to be fine, I remind myself, he has friends.
Woodrow T. Wilson said, “Friendship is the only cement that will ever hold the world together.” The ONLY cement. And he meant it. As the 28th President of the United States Wilson won the Nobel Peace Price for his sponsorship of the League of Nations following WWI. It was intended to build friendships, prevent war and make sure everyone played nice in the sandbox. But it didn’t last. It was a nice start though.
We’re still working at it, this friend thing. The United Nations is trying to ensure we share and take turns and don’t point nuclear weapons at each another. That’s good. I sat next to an Iranian woman on my flight from Amsterdam to New York a couple weeks ago. She grew up in The Netherlands but most of her family still lives in Iran. We shared the exit row and discussed how we would go about working things out in the event of an emergency. I would pull open the door and she would usher people out. Thankfully there were no emergencies, except for the overcooked tortellini, and we both had a restful flight. When we reached New York I gave her some tips for navigating the city and she thanked me. “If only,” we joked, “our countries could get along so well.”
Despite countries being at odds, people aren’t so different.
Confucius said, “All people are the same; only their habits differ.”
Living outside of America I’ve come to recognize my American “habits.” We wear sneakers and jeans, act friendly and smile a lot, generally speaking. We say hello to strangers. We don’t crowd into elevators. And we do open doors for other people—a dead giveaway.
My American self has loved meeting the more reserved, thoughtful, unassuming, beautiful, nature loving, green-living Swedish people. Three years immersed in this culture and my habits are changing.
My American fit-bit-wearing-on-the-go self has s l o w e d down. I spend more time in nature. I go for long walks through the forest and don’t count my steps (anymore). What I am counting is how lucky I’ve been to be where I’m at, in Sweden.
Sweden has taught me to do less and experience more. It’s a state of flow I would not have found, if not for this country. Shops close at 6:00, the shopping mall closes at 4:00 on Saturdays. The Swedes have six weeks of vacation in the summer and work-a-day life comes to an abrupt halt. Need a plumber in July? Ain’t going to happen (we’ve tried). The Swedes have the “live to work” thing all backward—and it’s pretty amazing.
Swedes have taught me the habit of ritual. They light candles in winter. They celebrate holidays with same traditional foods. They only sell olive cheesy bread on Fridays—because. They like things a certain way and that’s how they like them. There’s comfort in predictability and routine, knowing that whatever bakery you walk in, whatever grocery store you shop in, they’re all going to have the same kanelbullar (cinnamon roll). That’s not the American way. We like different and if something’s popular, we’ll sell it 7 days a week. Here, tradition trumps capitalism and that’s well…frankly unbelievable!
Swedes have taught me a more minimalistic approach to life. Admittedly, I was frustrated at first, wishing I had more closet space (or even a closet), but now I love the feeling of having what I need and using what I have. It’s simple. And living simple means more time for those walks in nature. No wonder everyone’s in the forest.
As much as I love Sweden, I have this other habit, one I can’t seem to break, of moving every couple of years. It’s what we do. But Sweden will always be home and so will Vienna and so will Greece and so will all the other places we’ve lived. Because home is where the people I love reside. It’s memory and experience. It’s a place that can survive any natural disaster if built on strong relationships and love, mostly love. My next home will be in St. George Utah. I’ll put out the “Welcome,” mat. Friends you know you have a home. And Swedes, if you come to America, we’ll eat cheesy olive bread on Tuesdays and shop at Target after midnight…just for kicks.