Going to the movie theater is one of my favorite things to do here in Muscat. Before 7 pm, the theater is empty and so are the best seats. The popcorn is cheap and tastes like the good stuff. (The cheddar-caramel mix is out of this world.) And best of all, it only takes two minutes to walk from our house to the nearest theater. We’re a street and a parking lot away (which means I don’t even have to use the public restrooms). Talk about convenience.
So when Justice League was playing, Cooper and I walked over one Friday afternoon (the weekend here) to get our popcorn and enjoy the show. Only thing was, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought I would. Afterward, as we walked back home, something bothered me, and it wasn’t just Ben Affleck’s acting. The plot was canned, yes, the world was at the brink of total destruction (again) but that wasn’t it either. I was happy Superman was back, once he stopped trying to destroy everyone. (Sorry, late on the spoiler alert.) Yes, I loved Wonder Woman, but she and Batman together? Uhh…no. I left feeling what evs, when I should have been feeling inspired, that’s what Superhero movies do, they save the day!
I liked all the Spiderman’s with Toby Maguire, all the Batman’s directed by Christopher Nolan. Wonder Woman was beyond brilliant, (and yes ladies, we waited far too long). Ironman, great. Antman, funny. So why was this one so different?
It wasn’t until the next day, when I got an email from a friend with a link to a TED talk that I realized the reason why this movie left me feeling hollow and deflated. The TED talk, given by the Pope, titled: “Why the only future worth building includes everyone,” was about our Real-world crises, the one going on right now, on our doorstep, not some “other” place.
He didn’t say it in so many words, but he reminded me of the desperate need we have in the world for love, for goodness, for clean air, for honesty, for morals, for safe cities and restored hope, for heroes. Justice League had Superheroes, but they weren’t saving us from anything, not even boredom. And I suppose, the fact that Hollywood is in a critical moral deficit from years and years of untold sexual abuse and lies, that it rings a little hollow they would be the ones to inspire us to moral greatness.
I believe in redemption, I believe in forgiveness, but we need men and women who are willing to stand for truth and virtue for our rising generation. Not just talk about it, but actually be it.
Looking at the current line-up of politicians and leaders across the globe, I have to ask, where have our heroes gone? Sports figures, newscasters, actors, government officials, there’s been a string of incidents and accidents, hints and allegations (Paul Simon said it). Senator Jeff Flake, famous for resigning, said, “Enough.” Enough already. If you’re going to stand for something, then STAND FOR SOMETHING.
This isn’t about being perfect, long live the narrative of the flawed hero willing to come to the rescue of humanity. But we have false heroes, with powers capable of doing good, turning a blind eye to the loss and utter destruction of whole countries and our planet! And I’m not even overstating the facts.
America is arming the depraved Saudi government with massively destructive, sophisticated, I’m talking Tony-Stark type weapons–that are blowing civilians to pieces in Yemen. Trump was just in Saudi, shaking hands with the Crown Price, getting all kinds of flattery for making billion-dollar deals that continue to cause the GREATEST HUMANITARIAN CRISES since 1945. According to latest reports by the BBC, 14.1 million people in Yemen face possible starvation. Enough. Enough. ENOUGH.
Heroes for humanity
If you want to glimpse why this crisis is epically critical, watch the TED talk by Melissa Fleming of UN’s refugee agency. You’ll hear stories of children who’ve been driven from their home while parents and family members were killed. Stories of children forced to live in refugee camps that look like prison, as they wait and wait and wait for hope. Millions of children are facing this predicament, and they may be the lucky ones. Still more live within borders where food and medicine can’t reach them. I live next door to Yemen, where every single day children are dying because they don’t have enough food to eat. Yet here I am, trying to work out and shed a few pounds before the holidays, breathing in the sun lit air. It’s a difficult truth, but I’ve got to tell it.
It’s where we stand now, but it’s not where we have to stay. Yes, I can’t cross the Yemen border and reach those people or stop this complicated and sinister war. But as the Pope reminded:
“The future of humankind isn’t exclusively in the hands of politicians, of great leaders, of big companies. Yes, they do hold an enormous responsibility. But the future is, most of all, in the hands of those people who recognize the other as a “you” and themselves as part of an “us.” We all need each other.”
There are things we CAN do. Ways we can be everyday heroes. And if you watch Melissa’s TED talk, you’ll see some inspiring messages for the power of resilience among refugees. The Pope said, “A single individual is enough for hope to exist.” All it takes is one person to give another person hope, then it spreads. “There begins a revolution.”
Starting a revolution
This world needs a revolution. People need help. And help usually comes in the form of another person. If our days lack meaning, the best way to create it is to help someone else find there’s. Jesus taught that unless we serve others, there is very little purpose in our own life. Mother Teresa said something similar, “One cannot love, unless it is at their own personal expense.” Heroes love greatly. They sacrifice for others. They don’t run when the fight comes knocking. That’s why we cheer for them, that’s why we call them heroes.
The Good Samaritan
We can stay stuck looking to the sky for someone to save the day, or we can roll up our own sleeves and get to work. We start by doing the small things. Donate. Volunteer. Smile at someone. Reach out. Start a food drive. Everyone can take part in this revolution. All it takes is a willingness to not cross to the other side of the road. We can’t close our eyes when we see someone in need. Like the Good Samaritan, we can reach out and help some “one,” one at a time, no matter ethnic background, race or religion.
The “one,” makes up us all.
“If you take care of the small things, the big things take care of themselves,” -Emily Dickinson. We have some pretty big things to take care of on this planet, but all we need to do is get started with the small. One day at a time. One person at a time. One act of kindness at a time.
The Yemen crises is our crises. These people are our people. We are all brothers and sisters of the human race, born to this time. Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” We can’t do nothing. We have to talk about this, get our politicians talking about this, tune into what it going on and say ‘Enough.’ If we are loud enough and clear enough, our voices will carry.
Elie Wiesel, a survivor of the holocaust said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” We can’t be indifferent to the wars that are raging, the people that are dying, the leaders that stand as false heroes. We need radical kindness. For inspiration, watch this video, show it to your family and decide what you can do to change the world. Do something for “one.” #OneForAll #RadicalKindnessRevolution #LightTheWorld
A young fifth grade girl walks to where I’m positioned by the bleachers watching the wiffle ball games. She sits down behind me, shoulder’s slumped, “I don’t want to play anymore” she says. Earlier, I’d set up the bases, counted fifteen paces between plates, placed polystar markers where the kids were to position themselves in the outfield and pitch. It’s not my usual day job, gym teacher… Read More
All good things have beginnings that if traced back tell a larger story—the BIG picture of life. This is a post about a book I co-authored, but it’s also about how we sometimes go “off-track” to find where we need to go.
My story begins in California, in the foothills of San Ramon, where I endeavored to complete a Master’s Degree in secondary education. For some time, I’d been pondering how I could live a meaningful life and if felt like becoming an educator was the right decision. I knew we’d be moving back overseas soon and with a degree in education I could work and teach at an International School.
Previously, my titles had included “Moving Coordinator and In-House Relocation Specialist,” resettling and settling our family in Virginia, Greece, The Netherlands, Austria, and San Ramon. I was busy, most definitely, but not sure my days were always meaningful. I wanted to make more of a contribution and felt my purpose was yet ambiguous. Going back to school would change all that.
But after a year into my Master’s program, Cooper was assigned to a ‘War Zone’ in Pakistan and we were on the move again. My master’s program was online, so theoretically, I could attend school wherever I lived. But the reality of ‘solo’ parenting, selling our home, and moving to Pennsylvania, AND having a baby on my own (did I mention I was pregnant?), meant school was necessarily on hold.
Still, I took measures to continue my progress. In Pennsylvania, I passed the Praxis test and felt well on my way to becoming a teacher, but a year later when we moved to Virginia, my program requirements changed and I had to take Virginia’s state testing. As luck would have it, less than a year later we moved to Irvine California, and again, I encountered the same issues—new requirements, new testing.
Then came our next international move to Sweden…
By now five years had lapsed and my Master’s Degree was essentially invalid. The only thing I had to show for my efforts was a binder filled with classroom observations—over a hundred hours of watching teachers teach—and a dozen or so research papers and essays. That, and a shelf full of books on how to be the most awesome teacher on the planet, (I’d had plans).
With my goals unfinished, I carried a nagging sense that life was “off track.” I was over forty and still without a higher degree or credentials. And as if life wanted to confirm that everything was all “wrong,” our expat resettlement in Sweden proved difficult. We couldn’t find housing, then when we did, our house had plumbing issues so we had to move again, AFTER I’d hung the artwork. Three moves in thirteen months occupied all of my time and left me feeling less and less purposeful.
In the meantime…
I’d met a lovely dark-haired woman named Karen my first week in country, at a bakery on the island of Lidingo where we both lived, (I was still in temporary housing). She spoke American-English, ordering macaroons at the counter with her three daughters. I was with my kids, hunkered down in a corner of the café eating sandwiches, jet-lagged and not feeling particularly sociable. I didn’t get up to say hello and when she walked out I felt a twinge of regret.
But as fate would have it, that afternoon we ran almost smack into each other on the sidewalk, both of us recognizing the other from the café. We started talking, exchanged phone numbers, and promised to meet up again—because that’s what expats do. To recall it now, I can see there was fairy dust and a glowing light all around us at that first encounter–the magic of hope and friendship. It was the start…
Shortly after, we launched “Fika Friday” and invited other expats to join us. Fika, in Swedish, is a word to describe the ritual of sitting down for coffee in the company of friends. Our idea was to get expats together to meet for friendship and conversation, and of course, kanelbullar—cinnamon rolls.
We met weekly in the same bakery coffee shop where we’d first seen each other in Lidingo. Our first Fika Friday was a huge success. Seven people showed up! I now had six more than when I started.
And one of them was Tanya.
Tanya was a lovely unassuming American-Belgium woman with two kids, similar in ages to mine, and a background in theater. She was also an international speaker and passionate about helping expats, but I didn’t learn that part until a year later, when Tanya invited me to attend one of her lectures.
Soon after listening to her speak on how expectations and attitudes effect expat life, we began musing, wouldn’t it be great if there was a book that supported expat women, specifically the spouse—the one who carries the emotional work and task of caring for the family? We’d both gone through challenges as the expat spouse. We’d both made sacrifices, changed our goals and adjusted our expectations. We had each felt, at times, our expat life had gone “off track,” but at the same time, we knew there was so much to love and embrace about the expat adventure! We’d grown as individuals, as women, and as mothers. The expat lifestyle afforded us opportunities to learn and expand our understanding of cultures, people and the world. My purpose began to crystalize.
All of the challenges I’d gone through could now be used to help other expat women. And Tanya’s experiences and mine together could be organized in a meaningful way to give answers to the dilemmas expats face.
Neither of us had written a book before, although I’d been trying with a few fiction projects and a screenplay. So we met in my dining room, sat at the table with notebooks and laptops, and discussed just that—how to write a book. Our probing question and answer sessions began with chatting about the dilemmas we’d both faced and how we’d handled them, (or the dilemmas our friends faced). What had worked? What hadn’t? We wrote it down. We spent hours and weeks and months, and in the end, we had mined our 15 international moves for the best golden nuggets of wisdom. Our pages and pages of notes became woven into short chapter narratives to ensure the busy expat spouse would only need a few minutes to read and digest the issues that had taken us decades to learn. What we produced, in the end, were universal dilemmas that affected every expat spouse, whether moving to England or Ethiopia. We thought it was pretty good, then we found a publisher who thought it was pretty great.
It wasn’t easy. We didn’t always agree on everything. Tanya and I had to compromise to find our “our voice.” And we were both busy moms too. Mid-way through the writing process, I moved stateside to St. George, Utah, while my husband was posted to another ‘War Zone’ assignment in Erbil, Iraq. I was ‘solo’ parenting again, driving three kids to three schools, managing the family home and the emotional impact. But my small concerted efforts to write, helped the book take shape, and helped me feel purposeful. By the close of that year, as I prepared to move the family to Oman, the manuscript was nearly finished.
It was during this move, I experienced becoming an expat again as if for the first time. The book was suddenly a mirror, reflecting all the years I’d spent transitioning my family from country to country, back to me. When I looked in that reflection, I saw a woman, who though hadn’t fulfilled her other goals and dreams, had a life full of meaning.
“Unpack: a guide to life as an expat spouse,” revealed the contributions I’d made to my family and community–the contributions EVERY expat spouse makes. It seemed almost silly that I could have worried my life was “off track,” when all around there was purpose and value. Writing about the expat spouse for the expat spouse, led me to this conclusion–the expat life couldn’t happen without us.
The expat spouse is “essential;” she’s the one people count on when it counts.
The expat spouse takes care of the details, makes sure the kids are okay, that they have friends and are keeping up with a new school’s curriculum, staying engaged in good activities. The expat spouse packs lunches, makes dinners and volunteers in-between. She listens to her kids talk about their day as she tucks them into bed in a far-away country at night. She watches for expiration dates on the milk and on the passports, keeps track of when insurance is due and when it’s time to renew the visas. The expat spouse maintains ties with loved ones from a distance, while making time to connect with new friends in need of support close by. The expat spouse is the glue holding their homes together, until they are needed to disassemble the pieces, move, and build again.
The expat spouse is the architect of family life and an engineer of the most valuable kind—the human kind.
How I came to co-author, Unpack: a guide to life as an expat spouse, is a story of how I came to appreciate my own journey as an expat spouse and stand in awe of every other woman who willingly does the hard work of supporting her expat family. Yes, it’s a guidebook for first time expats moving outside their home country, transitioning family and supporting spouse, but really, it’s so much more. Unpack is the culmination of my years, and Tanya’s, written as succinctly and helpfully as possible—a crash course on living.
Aristotle said, “Where your talents and the needs of the world cross; there lies your vocation.” For every woman who finds herself wandering, as I did, feel free to take a chapter from my book, and remember to look for meaning and purpose in everything and everyone around you. Don’t worry that your life doesn’t look like someone else’s or that the goals you’ve set haven’t worked out. Your vocation is always this present moment, and your purpose is to recognize the meaning in your life that is already there, and always has been. Find that and your journey may wander, but you will never have to wonder if your journey has purpose. You will see your value reflected in the people you love and care for–uncovering meaning no matter where your expat life takes you.
We left Muscat in the deep darkness of 1:20 am, (the time most flights depart and arrive in Oman). It was Eid holiday, so the kids had a few days off school, plus the weekend – the perfect time for a late summer vacation to visit Cooper’s sister and husband in Italy.
We boarded the plane, shoved our bags into the overhead and sat down, pulling on eye masks, ignoring the beverage service in exchange for a few restless hours of sleep. Four and half hours later, blurry eyed, with the beginnings of headache coming on, we arrived in Istanbul with less than twenty minutes to make our connection to Venice. Read More
The afternoon sun stretches like unfurled ribbons across my bedroom floor – a pattern created by the locked iron bars on my second story balcony. I’m back in Oman, after a summer traveling between northern and southern Utah, Pennsylvania and South Carolina. My body is jet lagged and my head slightly off kilter; summer is still something of a dream – a dream I’m trying to remember.
From my reposed position in bed, I glance around at my surroundings, taking note of the traditional American cherry wood dressers, mirrors, side chairs and pineapplesque lamps – the same furnishings procured for almost every Embassy residence around the world. I’ve lived with this décor everywhere from Greece, to now Oman – props and stage sets that have moved with us, while the play and actors have changed.
Our beloved Shakespeare gave us this: ‘All the world’s a stage.’ And I venture to add, it matters little if the stage is in Oman or the U.S. or somewhere else – we all have a part to play and we must play it well, adjusting to each new act and season.
This is our new season, Act II, if you will, in Oman, and we’re down one trooper: Micah. He’s off to great things at BYU, and we’re half way around the world, sporting alumni regalia with t-shirts and hats (we couldn’t be more proud or excited). But we miss him, especially when I cook his favorite pasta dish and there’s sooooo much left over, sigh…
Summer was a whirlwind. I guess that’s why I can’t quite believe it’s over and life is moving on. Maybe that’s why I sit here, trying to remember. Summer, for me, began in spring… back when I was planning and strategizing and lying awake at night, in this same bed, sleepless and typing notes into my phone, wondering how it would all get done. My to-list included appointments, visits to family and friends, and important events, but it all hinged on one vital assumption – that we’d be living in Provo in the townhouse we had put money down, the one Cooper flew to Utah to buy, the townhouse where our son would move into in the fall, when he returned from Army Basic Training, the townhouse that would be ‘home.’
Everything looked as though it was going according to plan too, so I took the liberty of enrolling Jonah in two weeklong camps at BYU and Maggie in another. But alas, the builders couldn’t get the subs and the subs didn’t put up the drywall till late June and the actual walk-through didn’t happen until the day before I had to drive to St. George to fly back to Oman August 17th.
Soooooo… we never lived in the townhouse.
And all my sleepless nights planning?
Instead, we spent our days and nights in a variety of accommodations, building up our Marriott reward points and relying on the goodwill and graces of family and friends who welcomed us in. As it turned out, schlepping 4 kids and eight suitcases around took some coordinating, (and the use of my in-laws Escalade, for a time). But we managed, until we were able to off load a third of our suitcases and bid a merry farewell to Micah at BYU for summer term. At least one of us had a temporary place to call ‘home.’
But as things turned out, we got to see more family and friends then planned, using our shiftless itinerant state to venture from west to east coast. Our visit to my parents happened to coincide with my brother’s family cross-country trek and for the first time in more than TWENTY years, we were all together for a family photo. A miracle I tell you. As the old saying goes: it wouldn’t have happened if we’d planned it.
The majority of summer, was spent living in St. George, ‘escaping the heat,’ as I joked with the locals, on days when temperatures soared to 105 and above. We stayed at my sister-in-law’s house in Santa Clara. She wasn’t there, actually. She was in Italy, enjoying quaint corners of the city and photo-worthy cuisine—as seen on her Instagram. We were ever so grateful for her hospitality. And as it turned out, grateful not to have a plan, because this way, each day took an unexpected shape of its own—including lots of time spent with old friends, and trips to ‘Swig,’ (Our favorite).
The unstructured living of St. George was balanced nicely with frequent trips north to visit grandparents, check on our townhouse, and attend events, like Cooper’s 30th high school reunion (Go Cavemen!) – especially memorable, because by mistake, I got in their Alumni Class Photo. I undoubtedly left some squinting at the Alumni Facebook post asking, ‘Who’s She?’
Interspersed between life and events, were the unexpected ‘conincidences’ too many to list. Like the time, we saw a young man Cooper coached in baseball in Vienna, Austria, return home from his two-year LDS mission. Back when we first met him, he was eight years old, newly adopted from an orphanage and only spoke Russian. Now his English was perfect, his strong 6 ft. plus physique looked healthy as could be and his countenance smiled – you’d never know the childhood he came from. I knew his adopted mother well, she was one of my best friends, and though she passed away from cancer several years ago, I felt like I was able to see her too, through him. Her love and bright spirit was a tangible part of who he’d become.
There was also the time when we walked into a restaurant and one of Maggie’s former schoolmates ran up to her and gave her a gigantic hug. My husband turned to me, puzzled, ‘Does that girl know Maggie?’ We were all surprised. We hadn’t planned on seeing her friend that day, but Maggie had lunch with her buddy and exchanged numbers so we could plan more playdates. For an expat kid who’s had to say good-bye to more people than you can count, this random encounter was nothing short of a gift.
To think back now, and reflect on my fears of an unstructured summer, how I had worried if things didn’t go according to plan, if the townhouse wasn’t finished, if we didn’t have a place to stay… the earth would come to a screeching halt. And yet, everything turned out fine—even better!
Including Maggie’s baptismal day. It’s illegal for our church to baptized here in Oman, so when Maggie turned eight (the age a child can choose to be baptized in our Faith), we waited, hoping to find the right time and place, hoping that some family could be there for the event and perhaps a few friends too. We never imagined the family and friends who traveled to be there. It was a blessed day we’ll always cherish.
As was another…
In all our planning, we didn’t know how we’d make it to South Carolina for our oldest son’s graduation from Army Basic Training. But between airplane rides and a 14-hour drive, we arrived just in time to watch his battalion, and three other battalions – hundreds of men and women dressed in fatigues – emerge from a smoke screen wall, in the middle of a wide green Carolina field edged by thick woods. As the soldiers held aloft the American flag, and music beat in the background, the tears streamed down my face. It was a moment you can never forget – will never forget. A moment that strikes deep in the heart of a patriot, knowing that each of the soldiers marching would go into battle to protect our country, their family and our freedoms.
I didn’t have this moment planned either.
Nor was the excursion to Fallingwater planned – one of our summer highlights. The house was designed by Frank Loyd Wright in 1935 for the Kaufmann family. His cantilever design (think of a diving board built on top of a diving board, built on top of another diving board), extends over a mountain spring waterfall. We toured the property with mouths wide open, continuously marveling at the genius of the design.
Indeed, whatever I thought I’d be doing this summer—decorating a townhouse, taking Maggie to swim lessons, having a structured schedule—it all paled in comparison to what we actually got—a series of beautiful, seemingly random encounters with humanity and joy. I know of no other way to describe it.
It’s life improvised. It’s packing up the props and taking the ‘show on the road.’
Shakespeare gave us the stage, but Hemingway taught us it’s a “moveable feast.” We get these moments and then we get to take them with us. I’ve got all these and more, right here with me in Oman. I think about them when I open the locked bars on my window and step outside and gaze at the incoming tide. I think how lucky I am that my life has never gone according to plan and I think: I hope it never will.
As we approach the year mark of living in Oman, I’m stunned by how much time has passed, and how quickly this place has become “normal,” even routine. My initial fears of driving and getting lost (and never seeing my children again), are silly to me now. The sights and sounds—the constant battering of construction next door, the calls to prayer five times a day—have, for the most part, faded into the background of life.
But if you ask me, ‘Are you used to living in the Middle East?’ I’d answer ‘No, not really.’ There is still too much I can’t wrap my head around. Starting with where I live, on the northern shore of Oman in Muscat. It’s difficult to fathom that when I look out over the serene ocean, just across the cerulean blue waters, lies the country of Iran—one of a handful of countries without any formal U.S. diplomatic relations, and a notorious member of Trump’s travel ban. And if I wanted to, though I wouldn’t, I could drive to Iraq; it would be like driving from California to Utah, only different, of course. Yemen is closer still. Our neighbor. One border away. And yet, I can’t travel there either. For all intents and purposes I’m geo-politically land locked. It’s a form of isolation that’s hard to explain.
Lots of things are hard to explain, actually. Coming from a Western democracy, it’s hard to grasp a culture where religion and government are one and the same, where education is as much the responsibility of the minister of education, as it is the minister of religion, where social norms—everything from what you wear to how you eat—is dictated by your faith. It’s hard to comprehend even when it’s in front of your face.
We’re now in the holy month of Ramadan. I had no appreciation for what that meant, until I discovered that for 30 days, ALL restaurants, ALL cafés, ALL small road side swarma shops (that you wouldn’t even want to eat at) are closed until 7 pm. Starbucks is closed. McDonald’s is closed. My favorite smoothie shop, yes, closed. There’s nowhere to go if you want a quick lunch with friends or didn’t pack your lunch at work or if it’s the last day of school and you want to get ice cream to celebrate…you’ll have to wait until ‘Iftar Time,’ 7 pm. That’s when everyone prays (for the 4th time) and breaks their fast. It stands to reason, that with eating establishments closed, lots of shops are closed too. Not a lot of people are out and about when the entire country is fasting.
On the other hand, my husband comes home more for lunch, and the kids, having nowhere else to go, appreciate my increased efforts to create ‘restaurant worthy’ meals for the table. It’s taken my kitchen creativity to a whole new level, and in a small way, allowed us to see what life was like, before all of these alternatives to the family kitchen existed. I can see too, that this ritual brings comfort to the devout and faith to those who fast with real intent, honoring the meaning of Iftar, by sharing food with the poor and making each evening a special time for family and reflection.
But if you’d have told me that a government could dictate eating hours, or a man caught eating, a Muslim man, could be taken from his place of employment and put in prison for the night, I would not have believed you. I would not have thought fasting could go that far. But it happened, to an employee of a friend of ours, and though they are from the Middle East, they were shocked too.
I had to go to the grocery store, inside the mall, and pick up a few items this week. Micah came with me, the-ever-helpful-out-of-school-Senior-with-nothing-to-do (those were the days). As we passed from 111-degree heat outside, into the merciful cool air of the mall, a guard approached us with a grim face. He told us we needed to leave because my son was wearing shorts. Let me be clear, these were long shorts, half-way down his knee shorts, and he had on a nice t-shirt too. We were told that during Ramadan, women should have their arms and legs covered, but this was new information. I could only assume the guard was ‘hangry’ and overly cautious, so I thanked him and kindly explained we were on our way to H&M to buy the kid pants…he let us pass.
There are things I see and experience that are hard for me to understand, or put into context. Telling someone to leave the mall because they’re wearing shorts is one of them and grocery shopping is another. It’s not just that foods are different and sometimes I have to shop in two or three places to find the ingredients I need. That happens everywhere. It’s that the food comes from countries where, given the chance, I wouldn’t even be allowed to travel.
On my most recent grocery trip, I bought Mangos from Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world. Every 10 minutes a child under five dies there from preventable causes, largely due to malnutrition! It’s a staggering statistic and equally as hard to come to grips with, is that 3.3 million Yemenis have fled their country, and of those who remain, more than half don’t have enough food and more than two-thirds don’t have access to safe drinking water. And I’m buying their mangoes. It feels wrong, but the sad truth is, they need to sell their produce so they can pay for other goods and services, so in a small way, I’m actually helping. I can’t wrap my brain around it.
So, to get back to my question, no, I’m not really used to living in the Middle East. I’m experiencing life here, day to day, but I’m in a constant state of mentally processing. Luckily, experience is a patient teacher, and at some point, I may be able to say, I understand how life in the Middle East works. But for now, I don’t. And I am sure, if this were all turned around, someone from the Middle East living the U.S. could find reasons to wonder about our own cultural conundrums.
Ultimately, whatever our cultural encounters may be, our experiences come down to this: how people treat you. And I can say, for the most part, I encounter kindness, generosity and welcome wherever I go. And that’s a good feeling. It’s not uncommon to be greeted publically, by a stranger, as ‘Sister.’ The title implies our connectedness, and no matter our differences, I believe at our core, we’re more the same than we realize. Here in Oman, I’ve met devout Muslims who inspired me with their consideration, hospitality, and family values. They often make me want to be a better Christian.
Recently, I was exiting my car to go to the kid’s school. I was carrying a heavy load and struggling to shut my car door, let alone hold everything. A woman saw me and came to my rescue. In the course of our walk up to school, she introduced herself, told me she was from Libya and confessed that she worried for her country and worried about going home and worried how they would survive. It was a reminder that though we may be different, we all worry about the same things—our children, the future, our safety. Given the recent attacks in London, it would be easy for ‘us’ to perceive ‘them,’ all Muslims, as the same. But that just isn’t true. And this caring stranger in a head scarf, is just one example of Muslims I know with beautiful hearts. She made me think of something Henry David Thoreau once said, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”
What do we see?
The world is complicated and there’s so much to ‘see.’ Maybe if we keep our eyes open wide, we can acknowledge our differences, while still making room for one another. We don’t need to be the same to find respect. More than anything, I appreciate when a person sees me in Oman for who I am, and gives me the space to be the Westerner, I can’t help but be. Our differences aren’t the problem, it’s how we see them. So for now, I’ll keep trying to ‘see’ the world, to keep processing and understanding, that’s what I can do.
A friend of mine recently told me, her nephew was getting married. With emotion in her voice, she added, I haven’t been to any of my brothers or sisters weddings. And now… I’m missing this. She’s been living outside her home country, the Philippines, for the last seven years, working in Hong Kong, Saudi, and currently, Oman. I understood what she’s feeling—that heavy weight of not ‘being there’ for the moments that ‘count’—because I’ve felt that before. Her tale of missed celebrations and family gatherings, echoed my own memoir.
But to be honest, my perspectives on things that ‘count’ and ‘matter most,’ have changed, dramatically, over the years. And I think it’s worth asking, What are the BIG things in life? And if the big things are BIG, then what are the small?
When you talk to cancer survivors, like my remarkable mother, they can tell you that just waking up in the morning is cause for celebration. For them, eating a piece of buttered toast (and keeping it down), can be more thrilling than any cake they’ve ever tasted. They don’t even need a new outfit to be happy. Just a knit cap will do, and some cozy pajamas.
It’s all about perspective.
When my husband began working for the State Department, I silently kept track of the activities and events he missed when he traveled, counting them as the BIG things. But as the years rolled on and we moved and moved and moved again and there were stretches of months, that added up to years, when he would be unable to come home for holidays, birthdays, anniversaries and family gatherings, I began to forget about the ‘important dates’ and see that any date I was with him mattered.
When he could do the bedtime routine or run the kids to school, that was reason enough to throw a party. And believe me, he did! (My husband is fun like that—way funner than me.) But when milestones were missed and dad couldn’t be there, my kids didn’t fall apart or claim life wasn’t fair (they saved that line for other arguments), because they’d learned early on:
We don’t wait to celebrate the days that ‘count,’ but count the reasons to celebrate each day.
My mother-in-law has this thing she does, for birthdays. Okay, let’s just say, she’s not the greatest at remembering when her children, or grandchildren, were born. So when we do manage to gather at Grandma and Grandpa’s ranch, she goes around the table, handing out twenty-dollar bills, excitedly exclaiming “Happy Birthday! Happy Birthday! Happy Birthday!” From the youngest to the oldest, whether you just had a birthday, or won’t blow out your cake candles for another six months, at that moment, you are celebrated. It doesn’t matter if it’s a Tuesday or if it’s July and raining, she’s got her fanny pack open, and she’d doling out the cash. No one is about to say, But it’s not my birthday.
This kind of exuberance for life, the joy and wonder for everyday living, is contagious. And why not? If you only see people once a year, twice if you’re lucky, then don’t waste time, pop up the tent and bring in the dancing ponies!!
But… what about people who see their family all the time (maybe even a little too much time)? What does this narrative hold for you? I reckon you run the risk of having all the BIG things, along with all the little things, so it can get overwhelming. Feel free to take it down a notch. Just because you can do it, doesn’t mean you should. You know what I mean?
Living abroad, we don’t celebrate holidays in the traditional sense. Every country is different and we’ve had to adapt. There’s no Valentine’s in Oman or trick or treating. And Easter is on a Sunday—a work day here in the Middle East, (Friday is the holy day)—so that feels different too. In Sweden, our kids had school on Thanksgiving, but Cooper had the U.S. government holiday off. So for three years running, we dined out for lunch, on Thanksgiving, at our favorite restaurant, sans kids, and cooked the turkey and trimmings on the weekend.
Yes, I miss being in the U.S. for holidays, walking into Target and coming home with all kinds of fru-fru. But on the other hand, I’ve been liberated from the near impossible expectations of the ‘crop-and-cut’ digital culture. When you can make everything look more perfect than it actually is, that’s pressure.
Back in my day, we had rolls of film, and they were limited to 12, 24, or a whopping 36 exposures (for you youngin’s out there, that means photos you can take). There were no delete-oops-do-overs. That family photo where you blinked and the other person didn’t smile… that was the good shot. Nowadays, we gaze into the photo shopped world of friends and neighbors and risk feeling that our lives ain’t-quite-up-to-snuff. The quickest way to make the BIG moments feel small, is to over inflate your expectations and start comparing. They ‘NAILED IT,’ and you only sort of, kind of, not really, ‘nailed it.’ Ouch.
For Easter this year, my teenage boys got one sandwich-sized ziplock of the odds and ends of candy I could rummage from around the house—the stuff they hadn’t eaten yet. Oh yes. I hid their bags behind the X-box and made them play ‘hot and cold’ for 10 minutes. (I had to get some fun out of it.)
For my daughter, who still wants me to tuck her in every night and kisses my cheek before she leaves for school, I went to the extra effort of dumping some of her toys out of an old crocheted rag basket she uses, and filled it with three Junie B. Jones books and a zip-lock candy bag of her very own. We also played hot and cold. It was a humble and simple Easter, and just as delightful as anything I can recall, because I wasn’t exhausted afterward and still had energy to actually sit down and read books with my daughter.
Not surprisingly, my husband was out-of-town and missed the whole thing. But it’s okay, because when he gets home we still have plenty of other reasons to celebrate. Like eating dinner together, going for our beach walk, or watching him try to match socks from the laundry—I promise, it’s entertainment.
Transforming the little moments into the BIG moments gives you a reason to put the sparkling grape juice on the table, pull out the good paper napkins and order pizza on a Wednesday. We don’t have to do, like we’ve always done. We don’t even have to do things like our neighbor, or everyone else on Facebook. We can just ‘count’ today as lucky because we think it is, and that’s really all that ‘matters.’
We arrived home from Thailand with time for me to unpack, start a load of wash and immerse myself in a much needed bath while listening to the evening ‘Call to Prayer.’ My eyes closed, the words from Mosque floated somewhere in my mind, a rhythmic chanting, indecipherable. I offered up my own prayer to God, one of surrender and thanks…for the journey of the past nine days, for people both wondrous and diverse, for a life that feels heavy at times and buoyant at others, for every time good outweighs evil and we can breath a little more deeply.
It was in Thailand, looking out over the Indian Ocean when I read about the terrorist act in Sweden. An ocean of calm in front of me, while miles away the tragedy played out, shattering lives and peace and the unspoken trust that we are humans first. It was strange to see my surroundings and think of places and people suffering. After that, I couldn’t look at Thailand in the same way—I didn’t.
Somehow everything became a metaphor—the overgrowth and the undergrowth of vegetation for example, how it took over trees, strangling whatever it could cling too. The jungle is a place based on survival, nature at its most elemental—unforgiving and risky. And at that moment, the world felt very much the same. It felt like we were all in a savage jungle, dangers lurking in beautiful corners—New York, London, Berlin, Brussels, Paris and more and now Stockholm, witnesses to the destruction of the very thing—humanity—that religion tries to sanctify.
The next morning, on our way to breakfast, we happened upon an injured butterfly. It’s blue wings were wet and muddy. It seemed like a sign. We lifted it gently, laying it to rest on a lovely patch of green, out of the way of stomping feet. With hope still fluttering in its wings, the message was this: Yes, we get damaged, but we survive.
Later in the week, on one of our boat excursions, we came to a city on the water, Koh Panyee, nicknamed the “Floating Village.” The name rightly conjures images of hope and survival. The village, built entirely on stilts in the ocean, began in the early 18th century, when two Malay families were denied entry onto Thailand’s Mainland because they were Muslim. Being fishermen by trade, they set up homes over the water, and continued their work, growing in number, until they’d constructed an entire city, with a school, a Mosque, and shops and now restaurants tourists flock to.
Years ago, when the children of Panyee watched The World Cup and wanted to play soccer, the families of this village built a floating soccer pitch. The boys played without shoes, jumping into the ocean to retrieve their ball when kicked out-of-bounds. They became so good at soccer, that they started competing with teams on the Mainland. For the last seven years, the Panyee team has won the Thai Soccer Championship! There’s a plaque that will tell you their story near the soccer pitch.
Their homes, the planks of wood we stood on, walking over the ocean, were constructed from hard work, dreams, and the instincts to survive. A life on the water; the Panyee carved out an existence in their “jungle.” A place where tourists now find inspiration and beauty. Another testament that we are born from what is difficult, raised again to something unexpected and wonderous. Panyee was my answer to the question I’d been holding: Can we dare to have hope in this crazy broken world of ours? Panyee answered yes.
On our last day in Phuket, Cooper and I walked into town in search of a few souvenirs and the bottles of aloe vera they sell everywhere for tourist’s sunburns. Along the way we happened into a shop with carved elephants, real pearls and Thai silk scarves–lovely. We were “only looking,” when we met a British woman and her Iranian husband, seated in the furtive but casual act of purchasing a rug from a gentlemen from Kashmiri. It was for their new apartment just down the street. A place where they could escape the dreary winter of London and come more often once they were retired. As things go, we lingered for over an hour, talking everything from Syria to Trump, Rumi the poet to Persian culture, food and politics and how history in the end, still repeats itself. When the travel ban to America came up—the Brit, the Iranian, the Kashmiri—all were quick to say how much they loved the American people and the country; it was our governments to blame for the trouble between us.
By the end we’d promised, should we ever come back, to join them for dinner. It was one of those chance, but not chance, encounters. A meeting that bequeaths you a gift, a lens for seeing, not a mechanical lens, but rather the eyes to peer into the beautiful depths of another human’s soul. A reminder of the loveliness of humanity, the kindness, the hospitality that we share just by smiling into one another faces.
These are the moments that restore our faith that the world hasn’t all gone stark raving mad. There are still people who hold to the invisible thread of humanity, the one that continues to weave this intricate work we call life—String Theory for humans. We’re tethered to this ever evolving design and if we could step back, far, far away, we could see we are part of a pattern—each of us.
The pattern is all around us, it’s God’s hands in everything, and everywhere. He is not the tragedy unfolding, but the thread of many hands joined together to weave and heal and bind up what is broken. Thailand holds the memory of this lesson, along with so much untamed beauty it is hard not to wish to return. There are places on earth where it is easy to see God, where the very wind seems to whisper his name. It’s important to have our God places, to have our good memories, to keep a spot of refuge for when life feels risky and rejection comes calling. It’s good to also remember, hope is already in our hands. We’re holding onto it, just by being human, by agreeing to be here in this together.
In Thailand, it is customary when you say thank you or good-bye, to press the palms of your hands together, just below your chin, hovering over your heart while giving a slight bow. It’s a gesture that slows the pace of life to the calming speed of love and gratitude. It’s a state of mind and heart that translates in any language. It’s what we can do, not outwardly, but inwardly, toward one another to bring our hearts a little closer, our hands holding the thread a little stronger. In the words of Dalai Lama, “Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.” Thailand was my lesson that with each small gesture, each chance encounter, each tragedy we face, we can find something greater—our human connection and the faith to keep trusting in humanity.
On mornings when the shoreline retreats to the horizon, and a breeze blows, so you almost need a sweater, people of all cultures gather to the beach. Most mornings, but especially on these mornings, I walk. My usual attire: black leggings, pink t-shirt, neon yellow fanny pack and orange ball cap—I know, I’m not proud.
I move briskly. My arms and legs swinging, as I take the brick pathway, parallel to the sea. I listen to books on tape or TED talks or Imagine Dragons, but sometimes I take off my headphones and tune into the waves—the actual waves. I listen to birds talk. I “people watch,” (the way my mother-in-law likes to at airports).
You don’t need to be an expert in geography, or to have lived in Oman very long, to figure out each culture has a way of interacting with the landscape all its own. You only need to observe.
Where I begin my walk, there are Bangladesh men gathered, always, waiting for appointments at their nearby Embassy. They come for visas, passports and documents so they can work in Oman. They sit on the grass under the palm trees alone, or with a friend, or stand by the shore taking selfies. They are waiting for something or someone. They gaze at me curiously.
Overhead, I hear a mechanical sound and look up. A Flamingo colored crane swings gracefully— a metal ballerina— gliding through the sky. The men and cranes perform night and day, a non-stop encore we can hear from our bedroom window. Maddening at times, but rather magnificent to behold.
I resume my pace, passing palm trees. My body’s still waking up and wishing I’d rest in the shade. I keep going.
I see more Bangladesh men, these in blue jumpsuits. They are construction workers, eating their breakfast after a night’s shift. They’re the lucky ones. The ones with jobs and money to send home and someone to call on their cellphone while they eat rice and chicken from stainless steel pails.
Further on, there are more Bangladesh mean wearing green jumpsuits. They pick up trash on the beach, water the flowers, sweep the pathways with dried palm fronds and mow the precious tracts of grass, prized by picnickers and soccer players alike. They look at my workout attire, pumping my arms, and offer mystified expressions.
Under the palms there are the Omani women, arranged in tight circles, seated cross-legged on woven mats, their shoulders touching. They come to the shore to eat together, engaging in the age-old practice of “visiting.” They sit. They pour one another coffee from carafes prepared earlier that day. Their expressions are enough to tell you, they are enjoying themselves, talking as only women can. Their circle, leaving no space, seems to signal their bond and that the quiet revelry is only for them.
There are groups of Indian families too. You hear them, before you see them. Their laughter is the kind made at the telling of hilarious jokes, only it doesn’t let up. Parents, siblings, children, aunties, all together. There’s no uniform assembly, they sit or stand casually, passing food and laughter all around.
Along my way, I see Omani men in white robes, Indian men wearing kurtas—long tunics—with loose fitting pants. Some walk with hands clasped behind their backs, others look like they have someplace to be. There are dog walkers and joggers and those who, like me, just want to exercise without inflicting too much pain.
Closer to the Hyatt, the midway point on the path, I notice more Europeans. Tourists (with a capital T). They’re easy to spot. Generally speaking, they show more skin. Wearing swim attire and bikinis, Speedos and shorts, many of them are retired and old. They seem neither to care or know they’re in the Middle East, they just need sun and need it desperately.
There is also a cafe. The tables face the sea and are occupied by people sipping coffee. To the rear of the building, where the path winds, a repulsive odor forces me to hold my breath. It is the stench of freon exhaust powering ancient air conditioners, mixed with carbon monoxide, burning roses and plastic, Shisha pipe smoke, sandalwood and sweat, (that’s my best description). I pull my collar over my nose and take shallow breaths, trying not to gag. After a few more steps I test the air with a sniff and I think I might faint. I bury my nose again, inside my shirt and start to jog, whatever it takes to escape. When I know I’m good and clear, I inhale again, deeply. This is the absolute worst part of my walk, though strangely, no one else seems to notice or think so.
Which gets me thinking, how differently I fit into the landscape, an American, picky about smells, rarely taking time to sit…texting more than talking. I have a schedule, that’s why I’m getting my exercise done early, that’s why I don’t haul mats and food to the beach and invite all my friends for breakfast, because I’m busy and that seems like a lot of work for a meal. I am the product of my Western upbringing. I do things. Staying busy makes me feel like I’m accomplishing something. Which isn’t true, of course, and every once in a while, it’s good to see people who really know how to relax.
I reach the British Embassy and turn around. I slow my pace, just a little, take a moment to observe the sea, the white crested waves that come one after another, after another. I try not to think of what needs done that day, but stay in that moment. It’s difficult. It’s like trying to read while the TV is blaring. It’s easier to just to close the book and watch TV. But I resist those thoughts and really focus on the waves, the sound, the feel of the air. As I do, two policemen on white steeds saunter past, chatting easily with each other, nothing to do but patrol the least crime ridden sector of the world. Ahhh…
I continue home, passing all the same groups and places, all the same smells. Only I spot “The Biker,” (that’s what I call him). I move to the side to avoid him veering around me. He’s a regular on the path, a man in his late 60’s with a shock of white curly hair that blows recklessly in the wind. He’s European or Australian or perhaps American, and he’s passed me a hundred times, but never looks my way.
I wonder to myself, am I ever like that biker? Do I look away? Do I roll on past and hope people will adjust to my way of doing things?
The greatest part of living abroad is the opportunity to see others, because in actuality, you learn about yourself. In the words of Rudolf Steiner, “To truly know the world, look deep within your own being. To truly know yourself, take a real interest in the world.” It’s true. And just as true are the words of Maya Angelou, “In diversity there is strength.”
I arrive back home refreshed, endorphins kicking in, the kind of happy to be alive feeling you get after a good workout. But it’s more than that, I’m grateful for Oman, for the landscape that is teaching me, to make room, to share, to see our differences as they really are—our strengths.
I paint, and then I step back to watch what the colors will do. It’s one of those mysteries of life, a realm science can’t explain, why colors make you feel the way they do, as they blend, harmonize and sometimes irritate. The creative process is unlike any other endeavor. It brings all of your senses into focus. When I paint, I am my eyes, my ears, my touch. I am all of my senses, nothing more.
In my studio, the 81×65 cm canvas looms large before me. I begin to think…maybe I should have chosen a smaller canvas, maybe I should have taken more time to sketch it out, maybe this isn’t the right subject to paint…fear is speaking.
I silence the resistance by enlisting trust. Every creative endeavor requires energy and trust, patience too and ambition. I keep on keeping on. Desire is 99%, it moves me forward. I am listening, not to fear, but to that part of myself that wants to create. I’m opening the door and bidding her to come forward, “Here, you’re invited, won’t you stay a while?”
It’s a mind game, it feels like a gamble, 50-50 it could all go to squat, and then what?
I don’t answer that question. I’m too busy trusting. My brush moves compulsively, dabbing at the colors on my palette, mixing, swiping vivid strokes on the canvas. I want to fill the white space, but more importantly, capture the essence of this tiny broken shell I found on the beach.
The day I collected it, put it in my pocket, brought it home, washed off the sand, I felt it spoke to me. Not in words (thank goodness), but the mere fact that it existed, survived, had been tossed by the waves, but had come to shore, parts broken, with what remained intact so lovely so achingly beautiful. A delicate purple swirl, surrounded by hues of pink, yellow and blue. The colors were luminescent, almost emerging while I gazed on the surface. I was enchanted.
Somewhat rash and unthinking, I began to paint this tiny shell, only to regret my impatience later when I had to rework several angles, change colors, enlarge some parts, reduce others, but still, the process of creation, of coaxing this shape into life, was exhilarating.
I worked for a couple of hours, time flew by. I didn’t stop for lunch. When I started to feel real frustration, I knew it was time to let the oils dry—stop muddying the color. I needed to focus my attention on something else, anything else. But before I did, I took a moment to stand back and assess what had been achieved. To my dismay, I found the simplicity of the shell—what had drawn me to it—had evaded me. I was doing too much. It was simple. Why was I complicating it?
I put away my palette, washed my brushes and lay them to dry. All the while my mind stayed on the painting, reworking it in my head, trying to sort out what needed to change. If only I could consult with another artist, they might give me some insight. But wait…that was possible…in a way. I could consult with artists via google–the wonder of this modern age. I opened my laptop and searched O’Keefe, which is to say, I summoned her genius, creativity, and spirit. She is a master of simplicity and color and many other things, and her work often guides my path. I found exactly what I needed, an image of a shell and hope. You got this, she seemed to say.
With a vision of what was possible, I returned to the now dry canvas several days later. It was time to simplify, lay shadows, bring out highlights and come to some final conclusions as to the background color. There were decisions to be made and it took a few painting sessions before I made them all and completed the work. It was during this phase of the process, that I begin to understand something deeper….why I was so drawn to the shell to begin with, why I HAD to paint it.
A shell, after all, is a home, an abode for some small sea creature to temporarily set up shop; it’s a living quarter, built and used, then passed on when it’s time to grow bigger. Was not my own quest similar…to find a “home,” to understand this place so unlike anywhere else I’ve ever lived in the world?
I’ve been in Muscat for 7 months now, time enough to unpack and settled, but still, there’s a lingering sense I am not quite home. The “shell” or rather “home,” I’ve physically moved into, is still unfamiliar to my way of life and experience. My physical landscape is a bit unwieldy—6 bedrooms, 6 bathrooms, 4 living rooms and a gigantic rotunda situated in the center of it all—much like the round swirl of the shell, the starting point of the shape. Is it coincidence that this small found object that crossed my path, physically defines my space, even my brokenness?
I look at the shell, then at my painting. I ponder this revelation. The shell is an outer presentation while the organism that lives inside, stays relatively hidden. How much of me is still hidden living here in Oman? How much of others do I really see? The shell protects as it projects an outward appearance. I am living in a culture where women are covered from head to toe in black abayas and head scarfs. I cannot see the inner identity of a woman, but I know that within each similarly robe clad female, there is someone unique. I try to remember that my own appearance is also apt to throw people off. They might see me as a “Westerner,” when really, I am ME. I am my own version of myself and no one can define that by my outward appearance—my jeans, my age, my short hair, my weight, my skin color.
We are, in essence, a collection of beautiful shells, vibrant entities, not understood, unless we take the time to look deeper. Is that why O’Keefe painted shells? Is that somehow connected to the need I feel to collect shells and put them around my house and paint them too, on occasion?
I’m expert at over analyzing, but I really think I’m onto something.
My studio is on the second floor of our villa with southwesterly windows overlooking the Gulf. I watch the waves and the palm fronds tossed by the wind with a bird’s eye view. It is the gift Oman has given me, so much nature in constant view. I watch the people too, walking along the paved walkway. There’s an old man with a cane walking slowly, arm and arm with his wife, they look European. A man in a dish dash—a white robe—and hat is holding onto grocery sacks, more men behind him, they’re looking for a place among the palms to sit and eat. There are people lined up along the grassy knoll, facing the waves, a man taking a photo. Shells and people. I see a connection. My hope is to observe individuals with the same thoughtful attention I offer to this tiny shell. People are complex, but there is simplicity too beneath all of our differences.
I stop work on the painting. I’m not sure it’s done, only that I’m done. I know each painting must come to a close, but it’s never an easy task deciding when exactly to cease and desist (painting does feel rebellious at times). I’ve already got another subject in mind—palm trees. I’m going to sketch them out first, take a little more time to prepare so I spend less time fixing mistakes. Live and learn.
The birds are calling outside my studio window, the waves crashing. I don’t take any of this for granted. I’ve lived in so many different places, cultures, homes, countries. I know what it means to be temporary and that one day this too will be gone. But I’m just as certain of another truth—that this place will never leave me. Neither will this moment of clarity, along with all the other life lessons I’ve experienced along the way. I’ll keep my painting of this shell, hang it in my next home, as a reminder that each time we outgrow our abode, therein lies the opportunity to create and discover.
It’s 4:30am on this Saturday morning and my body refuses to sleep. I’m jet lagged from the 11-hour time difference we grew accustomed to in Utah and waking up all hours of the night. As disturbing as it is to be up before dawn, I relished the time to organize my thoughts—me and the ocean waves crashing outside my window. Life could be worse.
It’s a new year and I’ve yet to make any goals beyond, get through today. It’s difficult to think ahead when our shipment just arrived, household stuff we packed up six months ago in St. George. Boxes are everywhere, clothes strewn across beds, floors, and tables. Decorations, books, bedding, towels, boxes of yarn, undone, sitting, waiting for me like belligerent children, to call them to order. I’ll begin in one room—stacking, folding, arranging—then find myself in another. Nothing is getting accomplished as fast as I want it to. Of course, it’s one thing to organize stuff and another entirely to sift through memories—pieces of a former life that recall people and places you loved. Love takes time.
With my feet propped up on a paper cutter resting atop of a box of acrylic paints, I sit in what will be my office at some point. Right now it looks more like the garage sale of a crafting addict. I’ve got plastic tubs of yarn (dreams in the making), containers of ribbon and colored paper, paints and brushes. They will all have to wait.
Yesterday, I sighed over a box of winter clothing that was supposed to go into storage. Mountains of thick down coats, hats and gloves, winter boots. We needed them in Sweden but Oman is still a balmy 85 in the depths of January; no reason to have those things here. I intended for our winter gear, and the greater portion of our books, to go into storage, as well as most of the decorations we now have, but somewhere in the shuffle of Washington D.C. storage, air shipment and boat shipment, our things did a swap o’ roo. The tools in the garage made it here but the piano didn’t!! Oh the piano! That one hurt. All these months I’d been waiting, reserving space along the living room wall…SIGH…
As a general rule, moves never go as planned. Disappointment, frustration, resignation, Hello…my old friends, nice to see you again. It’s one thing to get the lemons and make lemonade, but what if you don’t even get lemons…then what?
Then you have to conjure magic, I suppose, make something out of nothing. Like those nights you didn’t make it to the grocery store but need to make dinner anyway. You take the lonely can of tomatoes from the pantry, crack some eggs, whip it together with the last remaining onion in the bin, and pretty soon you’ve got yourself a scrambled dish that’s worthy of eating.
Life is a lot of scramble and conjuring. We devise and reinvent and make do. And at the end of it, with a little luck, we’ve really got ourselves something. In my case, I’m hoping to have a “home.” I’m working to make sense out of chaos, hoping to again find identity and purpose.
We all do this, to one degree or another. While I recreate my identity on a large scale every couple of years, in smaller, less noticeable ways, we do this daily. Each choice, each decision, each step in one direction means another not taken, as Robert Frost said, “that makes all the difference.” I read once our body’s cells change completely every seven years, meaning we’re a whole new self. Cell by cell. Day by day. Change, it seems, is built into who we are, it’s part of our DNA. It’s what we do to survive.
The New Year’s begun in America and the Christian world, but here in Oman, the New Year comes in September, with the first day in the Islamic lunar calendar. Days are counted differently too. In Oman a day begins at sunset with the cycle of the moon. I can attest Arabs loooove their nighttime hours. The beach is the most crowded from 6pm till 2am. I sometimes wear ear plugs to bed and turn on a fan to block out the noise from the laughter of adults and children playing outside at midnight.
Right now my days and nights are so mixed up, I’m not sure when one starts and the other begins. I’d be happy to go with either way. But the point is this, I think, anytime you want to begin…begin. There is no better time than today. I’ve heard that said, but now that I’m older, I’m inclined to believe it.
Rather than make goals, I’m going to set an “intention” for 2017. Intention sounds fancier, but really I’m trying to be practical. The truth is I can’t control much from day to day. I can’t even control what stuff I have in my life, I mean Maggie was going to take piano lessons, but now that we don’t have a piano, we’re going with violin. Three of those showed up, (the violins the boys used back in Vienna, when in 2nd grade they had a strings program). So for now, the idea is to have an intention, a mantra for the year at hand. It goes like this: Prioritize Joy.
Joy! I’ve been singing about “Joy to the World,” this past month and that felt good. I don’t think joy has to be as elusive as I make it. I’m the type that likes to focus and get things done, be productive, but here’s the thing…if you don’t stop the momentum of busyness, then joy has trouble fully seeping into consciousness.
Take the last four days my life, for example…I’ve been in my house, digging through my personal avalanche, working to make sense of life—quite literally—and with another week of doing the same it still won’t be as perfect as I want it to be. But with “Prioritize Joy,” as my intention, I’ll take a break from all of this, walk to the ocean’s edge, stick in my toe and maybe even pick up a seashell or two, take a few deep breaths. Life only happens once, but every moment is a chance to reinvent, to choose differently, to keep surprising ourselves.
I’m surprising myself right now, eating pretzels from an open bag I found next to a stapler, a statue of Michelangelo’s The David and an antique globe of the world. I tell you anything is possible this year, whether you started counting down in January or will begin in September, the year is raging and we cannot call it back. We can only join in the beautiful, resounding chaos and prioritize joy!
Our son is returning home from his two-year LDS mission in Indiana to Oman. Two years. 730 days since I’ve hugged this loveable guy, made him enchiladas and told him to pick up his room and don’t put empty cereal boxes back into the pantry. He was 18 when he left, fresh out of high school. He’s 20 now—lightyears older, filled with experience, stories to tell and wisdom beyond his youthful frame.
When I mention to friends about our son’s homecoming, the fact that we haven’t actually seen him in two years, they politely ask, What has he been doing? And that’s an interesting question, considering we’re living in Oman, because unbeknownst to most of the modern world, Oman intersects with Mormonism in a remarkable way, in fact, scholars are here now uncovering evidence that points to Oman as the launching point of one of the greatest books ever written, The Book of Mormon.
This book comes from an ancient record, originally written and abridged by historian and prophet Mormon who lived about 385 A.D. He wrote on gold plates, compiling the story of his people between the years 600 B.C. up until 430 A.D. The story begins in Jerusalem, but quickly winds its way here to Oman, to a town called Salalah, a 10-hour drive south of Muscat. With the permission of the Sultan, scientists and archeologists are digging to excavate the site where Mormon’s believe the prophet Lehi and his family journeyed to, from Jerusalem, prior to their sea voyage to America. Nephi, Lehi’s son, describes in the Book of Mormon how they built a ship and sailed to the “Promised Land.” Of course, in order to accomplish this feat, they would have needed resources…timber, food, and plants, a conundrum that perplexed skeptics and scientists for a long time, when they believed the Arabian Peninsula was all dry desert. But they didn’t know about Salalah.
“Bountiful,” was the name Nephi gave the place where they built their ship. Bountiful in Arabic means plentiful. Salalah meets the criteria for Nephi’s description, “And we did come to the land which we called Bountiful, because of its much fruit and also wild honey (1 Nephi 17). This area is unbelievably lush. It’s a virtual island of greenery along the Arabian Peninsula. Winds from the Indian Ocean carry moisture to the region and the heat of the desert pushes against that moisture to create a thick fog for part of the year, resulting in tropical monsoon forests. Located in the Dofar province, Salalah is the only place in the Middle East where timber and resources are available and where Nephi could have managed to gathered enough food to survive their long sea journey. Here is a photo taken from www.almosafr.com, showing Salalah during khareef season, monsoon season, July-September.
There are also remains of a Jewish temple foundation in Salalah, patterned after King Solomon’s temple. Archeologists have uncovered an altar, where they believe Nephi and his family offered sacrifices, as would have been customary with their practices of worship, prior to their departure.
Another link between the Arabian Peninsula and America is found in none other than Colorado. A huge square rock along the Purgatory River, nicknamed “Block Rock” has hieroglyphics matching those from the Dhofar region. Thirty-three characters from a distinctive alphabet used by the Sahari tribe are also written in Colorado. In the Oman Daily Observer, circulated in January of this year, Ali Ahmed Ali Mahash Ash-Shahri is quoted as saying, with regards to the hieroglyphics, “It is a clear indication that the language is very old and the people from our place must have travelled to those places and finally settled there.” Ali Ahmed, now 68 years old, has spent the greater part of his lifetime studying ancient scripts and has written two books, titled “Ancient Inscriptions and Drawings in Dhofar” and “Language of Aad.”
Micah and Jonah recently flew to Salalah to take part in a dig, helping archeologists remove rock as they continue to explore Karfot, the beach where they believe Nephi constructed his boat.
They had an amazing trip and somewhat exhausting time, hauling rocks and dirt from dig sites.
The Book of Mormon chronicles the journey of Nephi and his family up to the extinction of the Nephite civilization circa 435 A.D. It’s a story for the ages, one of courage, loss, love, bravery, hate, pride, valor and ultimately faith. Thanks to Mormon’s abridgement, (a Reader’s Digest version of 1,000 years), we have the history of these people. When Mormon completed abridging the record, he gave the plates to his son Moroni to bury in the hill Cumorah—modern day New York. From Jerusalem, to Salalah, to New York, comes one of the most fascinating journeys ever recorded in human history.
Left undiscovered until 1830, the plates remained hidden until Joseph Smith translated them into English. Now the Book of Mormon is translated into 110 languages, including Arabic. When Malachi returns home from his mission, we’ve got a trip planned to Salalah. He’s been teaching about Christ and The Book of Mormon for the past two years, even handing out copies when the Broadway Musical came to town… “Want to read the real story,” he’d ask? Two years of his life seems like a long time, but not nearly long enough, if you ask him. And if people stop to listen, he’ll tell them, The Book of Mormon is a story that resonates with our time, a story buried in the past, but meant for our future, for us…and my family happens to live where it all began.
Photos courtesy Jonah and Micah