Garrett arrives on time with his Cannon wide angle lens, his tripod ready in realtor fashion. We begin in the office, turning on lights, adjusting the Plantation shutters, looking for the best possible angle to showcase the features of our home. He fiddles with the camera settings, and I survey the room I just unpacked 8 months ago…has it really only been 8 months?
I bend down to straighten the fringe on the rug, something I never do, but my home is about to be photographed for strangers to rent and oddly this seems important. Months ago, when I put my art on the walls, stacked my books sideways, vertically, and horizontally on the shelves (according to color), I thought we’d be here longer. But we’re moving to Oman in August and it’s time to pack up again.
I’m not disappointed. I’m not sad. I’m happy, stressed, curious, excited, mildly panicked, all of the above. It’s hard to describe what I feel. I suppose I’m trying to take it all in, like I do every time we move. I’m trying to remember this place, how it feels to be here, remember the people and relationships that have made this our “home.” Has it really been less than a year?
Garett moves to photograph the living room. He sets up his tripod in the hall. I stand behind, watching the camera’s viewfinder as he brings our life into focus. I see the leather couches we bought in California, our first REAL living room set. The pillows and sheepskins we bought in Sweden, the coffee table a friend bought for us in a factory in Jakarta (there’s a story), the animal carvings that were given to us from a dear friend who worked in Africa, the Native American weaving from Cooper’s parents and the drum his brother painted a few years before he died. I see memories. I see history. I see the roots that have grounded us in each of the four countries we’ve lived and more than 20 homes. Home for us is this…our family, our friends, our shared experiences, everything we take, a moveable feast.
Garrett turns toward me, points to the photo now frozen in the frame, “Is this okay?”
There’s something heavy in my chest, I take a breath. “Yes, it’s perfect.”
We move to the kitchen. I notice a distracting crock full of wooden spoons on the gleaming empty counters. I take it off, along with a few other objects, then step back. The kitchen looks spacious, thoughtfully built. I never liked this space and I wonder why now? What was so wrong? I thought it wasn’t working, but as it turns out, it was fine all along.
Garrett flips on the light switches and points to the bulbs not turning on. “Is there another light switch?”
“No,” I tell him, “I guess they’re burned out.” And as I say the words, I know, I know something about myself. I am burned out too. The bulbs are a reminder of “all things neglected” this year, what I’ve let slide. Who am I kidding, straightening the fringe on the rug, this single parenthood stinks. It’s been one of my toughest challenges to date. I’ve had to reprioritize everything. Feeding kids, a priority. Changing lightbulbs, not a priority. As life got complicated, priorities got simple. I’m so ready for this to be done. Is it really almost over?
We walk downstairs. He takes snap shots of the basement then photographs the backyard. Garrett tells me he’ll fly his drone over later to take some aerial shots, trying not to make it sound as cool as it sounds. I recall how I first saw this home, from an aerial view, up on the trail looking down, the “For Sale,” sign in the yard, me thinking, wouldn’t it be cool to live right there, by the trails, next to the red rock.
And then it happened. We bought the home and I knew, I knew, my life of trail hikes and plein air painting was about to begin. I’d be out every day, up on the trails, me and my easel and…and… yeah…no. Not even close. I’ve been far too busy for plein air excursions (oh please!). But I have gone on the trails, many times. In the early days, when I felt so alone, it was to walk and cry up there in the red rocks. In time, I found lovely friends and we’d hike together. (OH, I will miss them!) The red rocks became the backdrop for my life, even the backdrop for my niece’s life when I helped her with her engagement photo shoot. I managed to paint the red rocks, a time or two, indoors, from a photograph, (it still counts).
The dream, got me here, then life did what it had to do, teach me. I’ve learned this year about myself, our family, this place, how to live with disappointment, grace and faith. It’s kind of like that kitchen, as it turns out, what I thought wasn’t working, really was. I just had to take a step back and see it was just fine after all.
Viktor Frankl, holocaust survivor and prisoner in Auschwitz wrote the book “Man Search for Meaning.” He writes, “We had to learn ourselves…that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and mediation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”
Life is always asking questions, making demands of us, taking us where we didn’t think we wanted to go, but later, when we stand back and see it, we’re so glad we did. Life doesn’t go as planned, but in the end, it will go better (I promise). Life is a process of reconciliation—grieving, forgiving, learning how to gather strength then moving on.
I’m intrigued by this next move, by the little known country of Oman, the size of Missouri and Arkansas put together. Nobody seems to know where it is. I had to look it up on a map. But I have no doubt, like all the places I’ve been, Oman has something to teach me. More than anything, I’m excited to be a family again, all together, mom, dad, and kids under the same roof. I’m beginning to imagine what it will be like. It doesn’t matter that I know, I know it won’t be like anything I imagine, nor does it matter that it won’t go as planned, because I trust that it will be exactly as it needs to be and that is what I can hope for.
Dying is not for the weak. It’s for the very very brave. My dad has a pace maker, a heart stent, erratic blood pressure that requires constant monitoring, (along with a spreadsheet to keep the medications organized). He’s weak and frail and with his recent fall, he’s in pain. The doctor thinks his back is fractured, but it’s too hard to tell from the x-ray, there’s so much arthritis. It hurts to sit, it hurts to stand, it hurts to turn or lie down. His speech is like a slow-moving glacier, his thoughts half-frozen, ideas stuck behind an impenetrable wall. But he’s surviving.
When I visited my dad last week I arranged for nursing care, cleaning help, I gathered resources and information on the aging, I approach my dad’s deterioration with the same methodical gusto I approach one of our international moves or a kid’s science fair project—get all the facts and assemble needed materials. But my dad is neither a move nor a project. After I ordered the hospital bed, arranged the furniture for a walker, cooked freezer meals, rubbed my dad’s feet, I cried and cried and cried. Dying is so much harder than I ever imagined.
My dad has always been my hero and teacher. He gave me life lessons like…
If you think someone is following you, cross the street and walk in the opposite direction.
Always, always, carry pepper spray.
Have your keys in your hand when you leave a store, fumbling for them in your bag makes you an easy target.
If someone has you at gunpoint, run in a zigzag pattern, it makes you harder to hit.
His lessons were not the kind other girls got, but my dad was a military man, Army and Air Force, he was a private investigator too. He was defensive by nature.
There were plenty of other lessons too…
Be kind, you don’t know what someone has been through.
Don’t judge by appearances, that doesn’t tell you who someone is.
Be grateful and generous; always remember that people don’t have what you have.
Compliment others…something so little can make such a difference in someone’s life.
My dad knew these things because he’d grown up “without.” His father was a charming alcoholic, neglectful in his family duties. His mother was equally as neglectful but more abusive. For an entire year of grade school he wore the only two shirts he owned, alternating between them. When kids teased that he wore the same shirt, he’d lie and say, these are my favorites. There were days when the only food in the house was a stick of butter, and nights when Daddy didn’t come home. There was a Christmas without presents.
One day, when I was a teenager, watching some local Christmas choirs perform on TV with my friend Kristen Kutch, I remarked with a snicker, “those are the worst outfits I’ve ever seen.” My dad was in the room and heard me. He wasn’t worried about embarrassing me in front of my friend. “Don’t ever talk that way about someone else, that could be the only clothes they have.” His eyes were stern, his jaw set. I knew he was disappointed. I didn’t understand then, what I do now. He was one of them, he felt the sting of my comment, the shame. He was always kind to people because he knew unkindness. He’d lived the bitter and was passing on the good life to us kids. He didn’t want us to take it for granted and start to believe we were somehow “better.” We were no better, we just had things and that made us lucky, not better.
While home, caring for my dad, he was still giving me advice, words to remember. Sitting in the living room, watching Fox news from his lift chair, he leaned toward me, steadying his gaze on mine and with a slightly coarse voice asked, “What is our motto?” He gave me the answer, “Be brave five minutes longer.”
Be brave five minutes longer.
It’s the phrase that got him through wars, the phrase he uses now to get through each day. He tells me, “I was in Korea and Vietnam, but this is the toughest battle yet.” Each day is a fight. His shoulders are hunched, his hands show bone and vein, his knees give way and he falls, but make no mistake, my dad is a warrior.
There are things my dad would still like to do, places to go, golf games to play, books younger eyes would have liked to study. But there’s only so much time. “Don’t wait,” my dad says, “don’t put off things you want to do.” What I hear him say is this: You don’t get to do everything you want, so make life as interesting as possible. I tell my kids: Stay curious and everything will be interesting.
While caring for my dad, I go for morning walks and listen to the book, “Die Empty.” It’s been in my Audible collection, only now it seems I need it. The author, Todd Henry, advocates to consciously plan each day. Don’t let life just happen; spend time on your most meaningful pursuits.
Seeing what my dad is going through, I ask myself, what do I value above all? Am I devoting time to those pursuits each day, even if it’s just for a few minutes? Todd says it’s not about the end result, but the process. It’s dangerous to wait for the payoff of accomplishing a goal, waiting to be happy. He says if you take joy in the process, you can be happy right NOW.
I want to be happy.
I arrive back home, after my walk, and try to take joy in the time I have with my dad. Just being next to him in the same room, or preparing dinner, or helping him out of his chair makes me grateful. My mom is the one doing the primary care giving and my sister and brother-in-law are always close by lending a hand. I’m grateful for them all.
The hard part is at 87 my dad sometimes feels like a nuisance. He’s aware he takes effort and while I say, “It’s no problem,” or “Here, let me help you with that, I need the exercise,” he’s not without apology. I say no one should feel bad for getting old. Our last steps are as important as our first. These are defining days, the punctuation at the end of a very long sentence, which gives meaning to one’s life. There are still choices to be made, only just as a child isn’t old enough to do everything he or she wants, an elderly person isn’t young enough. It’s the simple things that entertain. Sitting outside with the sun on his face. Listening to Celtic folk music. Eating a small treat. Growing old means you don’t have to apologize.
The days are trying, but nights are the toughest. My dad has flashbacks to the war. One minute he’s in bed, the next he’s in a cave in the Philippines, crawling on his hands and knees down a tunnel trying to escape a smoking grenade. His memories are churned up like tilled earth, the past fresh and raw. Lucky for him, he has plenty of good memories too. We talk about those. He likes to recall when he was a champion archer; he still remembers his first bow, a Smithwick Citation. If you ask about his proudest moments, he might tell you about the Spark-lite he invented, a one handed fire-starter device still sold to the military today. He remembers people, the ones he helped, and the ones who helped him. The thing is, when you live a good life and treat others better than they expect to be treated, people remember you. My dad sometimes gets letters thanking him for things he did, or friends will stop by and sit for a while and tell him what he means to them. What I’ve learned is, it’s important to make memories you’ll want to remember.
After a particularly rough night, when my dad had slipped out of his sleeping chair and my brother-in-law had to be called to come over and help lift him back to bed, I went for a walk. Along the way I noticed a bush striped and bare, just starting to show signs of bloom, pink delicate tips. I thought how odd that a bush, almost ready to burst into life, should look exactly as it does in the fall, before winter, when all the flowers have fallen and nothing is left but spindly arms, reaching heavenward. Two seasons, spring and fall, mirroring each other, the beginning and the end. I felt there was significance. I let the idea take shape, the possibility that my dad wasn’t dying after all, but coming into full bloom, preparing for a new season, not here, but somewhere else, a place without pain and heartache, a place where he could emerge fully into his truest self. I believe God created nature to give us comfort and hope. These days I spend as much time in nature as I can.
I also spent time moving furniture, rearranging the house to make it safer and more manageable for the walker. At one point my dad remarked, “It doesn’t feel like my house.” It wasn’t that he was displeased; rather, the familiar had been comfortable, even if it wasn’t functional. All the surrounding changes, amplified the changes and lack of control he felt inside his aging body. It was hard.
The lesson for me was this…prepare to grow old, because you will. Clear out and make room and accept what’s coming. To borrow a yoga term, “flow” into old age. Make incremental adjustments along the way so it’s not such a shock. Do like my mother-in-law and start collecting “old age gear.” She has a wheelchair, a walker, a toilet seat riser—old age will not take her by surprise. She’s already informed her children, “I’m coming to live with you.”
Caring for others brings clarity to your own life, particularly if the ones you are caring for have given you life first. Being present to help my dad is a memory I will always cherish. He’s always been there to help me and teach me, and as it turns out, he still is.
I realized this week, I haven’t written much on my blog since moving to St. George. Maybe it’s because I’ve started my taxi service, a.k.a. Kids n’ Carpool. Or maybe it’s because I’m working on other writing projects, and channeling my creative energies toward making STUFF. Stuff like oil paintings, building furniture, crocheting dish clothes, growing succulents, crafting bath bombs—it’s a thing. Stuff that I can point to and say, “See, I made THAT.” Because being able to point to something YOU make is incredibly rewarding. In fact, I really can’t overstate how important it is to CREATE. It’s life giving.
I say life-giving because there have been moments, patches of time in my 20 year career as a mother, where I’ve felt “less than,” where I’ve even felt…I don’t have a life. It’s scary, in a soul wrenching kind of way, to suddenly wonder what you’ve been doing with the last decade or two of your life, you know, besides cooking dinner and cleaning laundry. But if you can glance over at the windowsill and see your succulents growing, or admire the frame on your nightstand (the one where you collected shells and hot glued them together), or look up on the wall and see the shelf you mounted, using a level! It’s something! It’s evidence! You are quietly creating spaces that reflect joy and bring harmony to your home.
Being a Creative means being present and witnessing lives in action. You are the catalyst. That takes energy. And it’s not just about artwork and being crafty; you’re approaching life with a level of awareness and thought that brings meaning. You foster connections, not only between materials (i.e. blue and white pillows go good together), but with people too. Friendships bloom in your surroundings and you create flow in your family life.
Being a Creative might not be what you set out to do. No one tells their parents, while they’re forking over funds for college, “I’m going to get this degree and then go be a Creative.” The Creative’s life journey is for the uninitiated, schooled and unschooled, mother, teacher, lawyer, doctor or otherwise, the only passage necessary to board this ship is that you begin—you begin to find a life through creating.
How do you know if you’re a Creative? You might be a “Creative” if…
- If you’ve ever asked yourself, “What am I doing with my life?”
- If you’ve told people, “I need to find my purpose.”
- If you’ve put your dreams on hold to make sure others live theirs.
- If you take joy in creating spaces that nurture conversation and bring friends together.
- If you love colors.
- If you go to Farmer’s Markets.
- If you treasure an antique of your grandmother’s.
- If you like to crochet.
- If you keep a journal.
- If you think homemade is better than store bought.
- If you post as many photos of food and décor as you do people.
What is a Creative?
It’s someone who loves to do sooooo many different things that they can’t decide what they love most, (FYI if you’re a Creative you don’t have to choose). It’s someone who creates things, little or big, out of seemingly nothing. (Dinner in a pinch, I’ll make a frittata. And if you know what a frittata is, then yes, you are a Creative!) A Creative loves to watch the sunset, but loves it even more with family and friends. A Creative might be 70, but she’s still not sure what she wants to do when she grows up *wink*. A Creative loves people. Van Gogh said, “I feel that there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people.” (Van Gogh was a Creative).
In writing to his brother Theo, Van Gogh remarked, “I must continue to follow the path I take now. If I do nothing, if I study nothing, if I cease searching, then, woe is me, I am lost. That is how I look at it — keep going, keep going come what may.”
A Creative must keep going, keep nurturing, keep building. Do you want to be a Creative? Then you already are one. Keep creating, putting a life together, one day, one project, one meal on the table at a time.
With Cooper in Iraq this year, creativity has taken on new meaning for me. Living in a new city, transitioning my world, I’ve found immense comfort in working on tangible projects that bring me joy. Sure I’m busy with the kids and doing the heavy lifting of being the sole parent, even more reason to get my hands busy on some projects that enlarge my mind and feed my soul. How do I find time?
I steal it. Here a little; there a little. Time barely notices.
I strive for increments of time, not whole chunks of it. I wrote this blog on and off over the course of three days. A thought here, a quote there; I let the ether talk to me and I talked back—that’s how it works. If you have only 10 minutes you can write some thoughts, paint a board, prep veggies for dinner, redo a table setting, read some pages of a book, light candles and breathe. In 15 minutes, well, the universe can be yours.
But what is your final goal, you may ask. That goal will become clearer, will emerge slowly but surely… right now it seems that things are going very badly for me…and may continue to do so well into the future. But it is possible that everything will get better after it has all seemed to go wrong. I am not counting on it, it may never happen, but if there should be a change for the better I should regard that as a gain, I should rejoice, I should say, at last! So there was something after all!” –Van Gogh
There is something to life, something to think deeply about, wonder about, search for…there is meaning in walking the creative path, seeing more deeply the beauty of nature, family, connections. Foster it, grow it, breath it.
The next time someone wants to know who I am, what I do, what’s my job title, I will say, “I am a Creative.” If they ask what that is, I’ll say, someone who specializes in creative living, designing spaces for life flow and connection. If they look puzzled, I’ll smile wide and let them know if they’re interested, they should Google it. (They might just find this blog.)
Kris Paronto, former Dixie alumni, Army Ranger and Blackwater Contractor spoke to a packed auditorium at Dixie State in St. George. I checked my son out of school for the noontime lecture and went early (to get a good seat), and sat waaaay in the back, next to those who were left standing. A self-described skinny guy, he took the stage, looked around and asked if Mr. Jolly was present. Mr. Jolly was one of his former football coaches; he said he had the shakes just thinking about him. To think of this former Ranger as getting nervous about anyone made us laugh and settle right down into our seats for what proved to be a warm and memorable conversation.
His humor infused his hour long narrative as he candidly related the events of the “13 Hours” he fought off Libyan attackers while rescuing 20 U.S. State Department employees in Benghazi. Those “13 Hours,” became the title of a book and major motion picture, which Kris said is extremely accurate. Hearing him speak, listening to his version of events was eye opening and at times unexpected, but central to his message was this…even in the midst of tragedy, there is beauty and moments where you feel God.
Like the moment when they finally arrived at the consulate and ran across the grass to get to the building; the green grass was the most vivid green he’d ever seen. And the flames burning from the explosions, there was no way to describe how bright and beautiful the orange fire appeared. Despite the chaos around them, his senses were heightened and colors became extremely intense–part of the memories he can’t forget.
And then there was the moment when he was out in the open, taking fire and knelt down to shoot his weapon. Bullets whizzed by his ears, snapping sounds, artillery breaking the sound barrier, but he wasn’t afraid. He knew he wasn’t going to get hit. It was as though a little golden bubble of protection surrounded him. He felt God was keeping him safe.
When you go into battle or face any kind of challenge, you have to have faith, you have to believe you will succeed, that God is looking out for you. And you have to know that whatever happens, if you live or if you die, that is the plan.
Kris should have gone home weeks before Benghazi ever happened. His contract had ended. He extended to be there with the rest of his team, a group of 40-somethings he described as the best, most highly trained, professional group of contractors he’d ever had the pleasure to work with. He trusted them. He knew what they were thinking at any given moment and vice versa. They were brothers. If not for this group of men, he said, things in Benghazi could have turned out very differently.
People ask him a lot of questions these days. They always want to know what it feels like to shoot another person. He said, “First of all, you don’t shoot unless they’re shooting at you and you know they’re not friendly. But when you take fire and shoot back, it’s just like being back in Colorado,” he said, “shooting prairie dogs. That’s all you’re doing. Then later, you think about it.” But Kris didn’t take body counts. That wasn’t his way. He didn’t want to shoot anybody. “Nobody respects human life more than someone who has to take a life,” he said. They all just wanted to stay alive.
One of the toughest moments of the entire 13 hours occurred at the end of battle, when he witnessed two of his fallen comrades rolled to the edge of a roof and dropped to the ground and after, loaded into the back of a truck. It wasn’t how he wanted things handled. Kris said he would have lowered them to the ground with a rope, but D team did it their way. Loved ones back home were told the bodies were handled with extreme care. They didn’t know. A year later when they questioned him and wanted to know the truth he told them just how things went. It was hard for them to hear and difficult for him to say, but they appreciated knowing.
Even when things might upset people…and they’re hard to say, say them. Tell the truth. It makes you a better person.
Have faith. Believe in God. Believe in yourself. Trust in yourself. Trust God. Be courageous. These were the phrases that kept repeating. There was humor too. Like when he retold how they escorted State Department workers out of the building into the cars. They were about to get into the vehicles, when workers remembered there was still classified information back in the consulate. They ran like crazy to go back and collect the thumb drives and hard drives and when they got back to the vehicle and tossed everything into the trunk, one of them said, “It looks like we just robbed Best Buy,” and Kris said, “You’re just sayin’ that ‘cause I’m Mexican.”
During war you think it’s all seriousness and every moment is some intense manly driven focus to kill, but that’s not what it’s like. There are times when you say funny things or joke because these are your buddies. You’re not some machine. You’re human.
Kris and his team members risked their lives to rescue 20 U.S. State Department Employees, fought off Libyan attacks in two waves of battle that lasted 13 hours, watched friends die, were essentially rescued by a Libyan Militia (not their own U.S. Forces), and when they got to the airport had to convince a Libyan military jet to fly them out of the country. You can imagine the difficulty Kris faced afterwards, feeling as though his country had abandoned them. Questioning the patriotism of those he thought he could trust, he struggled with his personal life, even thought about committing suicide. It wasn’t until he talked with his pastor and began talking to groups, setting the record straight, that he felt he had a duty to himself and to others; he felt he had a purpose. Talking to veterans and everyday people he saw how much they cared, and that gave him hope and something to live for.
Part of setting the record straight was letting people know they tried to get the Ambassador out. During the rescue they couldn’t find him. He died of smoke inhalation and was taken by the Libyans. Later, the body was returned and Kris inspected Ambassador Stevens and saw he was not tortured or sodomized, as some media outlets purported. He wanted to let us know.
His speech opened with an edited clip of the movie and ended with Kris thanking us for being there. We were riveted from start to finish. Standing before us was a hero, telling us he was average and just doing his job. That’s highly debatable, given that his commanding officer told him, and all the other Blackwater contractors, to “Stand down.” But they went in anyway. Knowing the risks.
Nothing that morning had indicated anything would be different or out of the ordinary from any other night. They were just going about their normal routines. They’d said to the State Department months earlier, seeing how unprotected they were, “If you ever need help call us,” and gave them a radio. That night they got the call and they made good on their offer. They drove to the consulate and because of gunfire, were forced to stop with 400 meters to go. So they proceeded on foot, scaling walls, weaving through dangerous alleyways to rescue their friends. They didn’t have to be there, they were under no obligation or contract to defend the consulate; but they went anyway.
Kris didn’t enter into the politics of the situation (I was hoping he would). I still would like answers. I still think the truth is hiding in destroyed emails and interoffice black holes. In 2012 we moved to Sweden and the Embassy began installing a new steel fence, the posts were several feet taller, sharper and further removed from the building than the previous one. There was a lot of talk about security. There were a lot of new perspectives after Benghazi.
Kris’ speech didn’t have an angle to prove anyone right or wrong. He did want to make clear, that the men who stood by his side in battle that night were willing to give of their lives, and some did, to protect others. They were great men and there was something to be said too for unlikely allies—they would not have survived without the Libyan Militia. There were moments of reflection during the long siege. At one point he wondered….will I ever see my wife and kids again? He said, “You put that aside and just keep believing, because you’ve got to believe.”
Kris became a Blackwater employee when the Army wouldn’t let him serve anymore because he had Crohn’s disease. Blackwater was his lucky break with a health history that wouldn’t allow him to do what he wanted to do, serve his country. As it turned out, God really did have a plan for Kris and you might even say Crohn’s was part of it. Because of his unlikely path, he was where he needed to be at the moment some very desperate people needed him. For me, Kris’ story is more than the events of that fateful night, it’s about trusting that God has a plan and that whatever you’re facing, it’s for a reason. There’s no doubt about it, Kris was the right man for the job. He answered the call. He did what he was prepared to do. He never stopped believing.
I was at Target on a weekday afternoon, there to buy essentials mind you, and the parking lot was packed. I had to park next to Buffalo Wild Wings. And walk!! The place was more crowded than at Christmas! What in the world were all these people buying? Didn’t most of us just overfill stockings and line the floor beneath our Christmas trees with badly wrapped presents? And TJMaxx was the same. Folks weren’t in line making returns either; they were buying MORE. More of what? What did we all need so desperately? As for myself I NEEDED of a trio of gold framed decorative mirrors to hang on my bedroom wall.
Wait up… did I just write a trio of decorative mirrors? I did…didn’t I.
This need vs. wants thing is getting complicated. In Sweden, life was so much simpler. For one thing, I usually couldn’t find what I wanted to buy. There were no Targets or Wal-marts nor aisles of Star Wars memorabilia in the grocery store. If I needed maroon tights or hangers or a spool of blue ribbon, I’d go to a shop where they sold those types of things. It could take days to track down items to the point of deciding I was better off getting rid of some clothes then buying more hangers, or wearing another color of tights or forgoing ribbons on packages.
Things in Sweden were rarely on sale either, rabbat. If there was a pair of shoes or a nice handbag, the cost was always 2-3 times higher than what I’d pay in the U.S. Which meant I’d usually wait to buy it when I was home visiting. Wait. Delay action. Postpone till a later date. Pause.
Nowadays, I have no reason to wait for anything. Target knows me so well; they put things I NEED at the end of aisles; I don’t even have to go looking for them. It’s like they know me better than I know myself.
Compared to Sweden, we have plenty of space in our closets. Of course, in Sweden we had no closets. It’s not that unusual really, most Europeans don’t. They have wardrobes, like the kind of thing you might walk into trying to get to Narnia. They don’t hold much, but they hold enough. The limited space forces you to pare down what you don’t need and prevents you from buying more. Wear what you’ve got until it wears out. There’s a foreign concept.
But walk in closets in ‘Merica, now we’re talking. There are virtually no limits. You can quite easily tuck in an extra shirt or pair of pants and forget it’s even there, until months later when you discover it hanging with the tags on. (The good news is I have a red sweater waiting for next Christmas.)
The problem with consumerism is that it’s consuming. It consumes money, naturally, but time too. Not just the shopping but also the wanting, the time it takes to price compare, hunt down the item, search online or drive here and there. The feeling behind the process is that you’re incomplete, you’re not enough, you need more. (And more is still never enough.)
What if for one month, you said, enough is enough and took a break from consumerism? Imagine what a consumer hiatus could do for your life? It would free up time and energy, leaving you available for other pursuits. Like Bob’s prescription in the movie, What About Bob, his psychiatrist tells him to take a vacation from his problems and it transforms his life, (and the psychiatrist’s, but that’s another story.)
In Sweden I was invited to the birthday party of friend turning 40. It was a lovely soiree, filled with accomplished women seated at three long banquet tables. Toward the end of the evening, the host and birthday girl, asked us each to stand and share one decision we’d made for the coming year–something to inspire us to make positive changes.
I can’t remember what I shared, but I’ll never forget what the woman seated next me said when she stood up. She said she decided for one entire year not to buy any new clothing. (Say what?!) She wasn’t going to buy new shoes or work clothes or accessories, and instead use what she already had. “Sometimes buying more doesn’t make you happy,” she spoke softly. There was a vague reference, if I recall correctly, to how clothing gets manufactured in third world countries, or maybe that is just my memory adding things. In any case, she was absolutely heroic in my eyes and more daring than the rest of us. I clapped enthusiastically as she took her seat while the women at the table (now on their second and third glasses of wine), looked nonplussed. To be fair, it was 2 am in the morning.
Telling people you’re not going to shop isn’t exactly a bandwagon anyone else wants to jump on. It sounds rather dull, in fact. But it can be liberating. Nothing to buy, nothing to consume yourself with… extra time means more time for the gym, that bike ride, posting a blog….
I’m guessing Marianne Williamson, who writes a lot of books (some of them Oprah reads), must not be spending lots of time in malls. She’s too busy writing about joy and gratitude. She penned this tidbit; “Joy is what happens to us when we allow ourselves to recognize how good things really are.”
Things ARE good, aren’t they?! We don’t always see how good they are when we’re out looking for more. What if we replaced that next shopping trip to Target and did ‘x,y or z’ instead? Free up space for the things that matter. (And leave a parking space for those who really need to buy essentials.)
These last few months I haven’t spent much time blogging, I’ve still been settling in, getting things arranged. Building a life in a new place. I decided to give a little time and attention to myself, make a doctor’s appointment, and get the “full work up.” It’s been a while and I’m past 40 and from here on out, I’m told, you want a good doctor. Naturally, it took an appointment to make an appointment. I had to get “established” first, that’s doctor speak for pay twice. Then the doctor ordered a bunch of blood tests since I’d been having some weird symptoms. Every week or so, I’d feel terrible, like the worst flu of my life. Joint pain, headache, high fever and trouble breathing. Since I enjoy breathing, I thought it warranted some checking into after I got established (you’re a nobody until you’re established).
They prodded my veins and tested me for Lyme, Rocky Mountain Fever, Parvo and a few auto immunes, for good measure. What do you know, Parvo turned up? Of all things, the one virus I neither suspected nor had a clue what it was.
Turns out animals get Parvo and can die from the virus. Humans get it too, although I’ve never met another living soul with it. But in case you’ve got some weird symptoms and feel like you might die, just know, like most things in life, there’s not a darn thing you can do about it and it lasts six weeks.
When I told a friend’s mother I had Parvo she said, “That’s what dogs get,” then leaned closer and asked with a grin, “Are you a B?” Her question, and my friend’s raised eyebrows, made me smile. This brightly dressed older lady was a spunky sort, out on the town with her oxygen tank in tow, and a cute haircut. A fighter, I suspect. A grandma who has been there and done that and has had to overcome a few things too. I love those grandmas. And yeah, I am tough. I looked Parvo in the eye and said, not this December, I’ve got way to much to do.
I’m happy to say I’m Parvo free now and loving life. No more joint attacks or sudden urges to crawl into bed and never get out. And that’s a good thing because New Year’s is on the way and so is my annual Christmas clean up I look forward to every January 1st. After a month of garland, lights and well, clutter, okay, I said it, maybe I don’t need four Santa’s standing in my living room; I get OCD. Thing is, this year I heard about Dillard’s “Everything 50% off Sale” on January 1st, which kind of throws a wrench in my plan. It all started today while browsing in the makeup department. A bored saleslady cornered me and gave me the scoop–told me I needed a strategy. Be there at 8:30, (store opens at 9), and get in position at one of three entry doors, (she pointed them out like a seasoned flight attendant). “You’ve got to BE READY TO RUN,” she said.
“Run?” I asked.
“RUN,” she nodded, “you’ve got to run to the item you want before everyone else gets there.”
She advised me to have a couple of friends come along, to help try and grab the item, (mentally I’m seeing the year of the Cabbage Patch stampede, folks wrestling doll babies, people getting smacked down with handbags—I’m thinking are we really going back there?). Her eyes spoke complete seriousness. “Have a friend stand in line. It will take a good 45-minutes at the cashier. FYI the limit for purses is six per person,” and looking at Maggie she solemnly added, “It’s not a place you want to bring children.”
I’m ready to leave but she has more.
“There are shoe people and purse people and clothes people and Christmas ornament people. You’ve got to know what you want.” With a crazed look in her eye she whispers, “The Christmas ornaments go fast.” Then with more head nodding she points to herself, “I’m one of those people.”
I thank her for the info and head fast to Barnes and Noble, cause I’m one of THOSE people.
I’m torn now, stay at home and do my annual Christmas clean up or risk stampede?
But that’s a question for another day…my boys are paintballing somewhere in the hills of St. George; Maggie is contentedly “shopping,” with her friend in the living room, playing store with Christmas presents they can “buy” all over again. And this long overdue blog post is done. Mama is going to sip her tea with her feet on the furniture and read her new book, “What Alice Forgot.” Merry Christmas to me. And Merry Christmas to you!
(artwork by Maggie Grace)
It almost feels normal, making dinner, driving kids to school, hosting back yard gatherings, taking care of the routine and mundane “to-do lists” of the day, until the moment I remember…my husband is in Iraq. He’s in Iraq.
It’s just me, and the kids and this house and life happening so fast. At those moments my thoughts splinter. I’m traveling at light speed to where Cooper is, only I’ve never been to Iraq, so my imagination is a Fox News version of the Middle East, an urban desert landscape where men with long beards and zealot’s eyes chant, “Death to America.” I think of the Christian’s being killed, girls kidnapped and raped, children who can’t walk the streets safely. The headlines of the day ticker tape through my mind in a series of jolting images that makes me question what kind of world do I live in?
And then my six-year-old says, “Mom, I need a snack.” It is after school and she is hungry. I gaze at her dimpled cheeks and dark eyes and I am present again, putting carrot sticks and ranch on a plate with Babybel cheese and crackers, arranging a silly face that never fails to make her smile. We sit at the table and I pour myself a cup of rooibos tea and instead of getting on my phone to check the latest updates, I watch her and we talk.
She tells me who was coughing at school and who upset the teacher. She tells me she played freeze dance and her best friend Kennedy* copied all her dance moves and that is the BEST Kennedy HAS EVER DANCED! She tells me she likes getting hot lunch and doesn’t want me to pack anymore, but says it in a way that I can tell she’s trying not to hurt my feelings. I am swept up in our conversation and forget I need to take Jonah to soccer, right now. I also need to change the laundry so I can get sheets back on our beds, before I’m too exhausted.
We drive to soccer and Maggie brings her scooter. While Jonah is at practice we go to the nearby park and for the next hour try to step on one another’s shadows and make obstacle courses. We could have gone home. I could have made dinner. But I think to myself, Wendy’s is close by, Dave can do the cooking.
After an hour we’re too cold to play outside. Jonah still has thirty minutes of practice so we sit in the car and wait for him to finish. There’s an IPad on the back seat, but it’s not charged. So we talk. “Since our country has freedom, why don’t they give us free Wi-Fi?” Maggie wants to know. She also wants to know if I’ve bought her a stuffed Olaf yet and if I’m going to get her one for Christmas since she’s been wanting it “forever.” She finds the Sour Patch Gum she thought she lost in the pocket of the chair and puts two sticks in her mouth and chews loudly. I ask, “Does that sound bother you?” And she replies, “Maybe it would if you were making it.” I tell her no more gum until we’re out of the car.
Jonah finishes practice and he’s cold. His ears hurt. He’s forgotten how to dress for cold weather since we left Sweden. He still wears t-shirts and shorts as if it’s 115-degrees outside, but the weather has changed and when the sun goes down it’s freezing.
We drive to Wendy’s. I tell the voice asking for my order in the Drive-through that I haven’t been to a Wendy’s in over ten years. I don’t think they believe me. And “Do you still have baked potatoes on the menu?” I ask. The voice says they do and I order one with broccoli and bacon and sour cream. I also get a half-size Chicken Pecan Salad that I hope tastes as good as the picture. Jonah wants the “Son of a Baconator” and a frosty. Micah texts, wrestling is over, he wants the same. Maggie’s happy with a hamburger but not apples, she wants fries.
Twenty-eight dollars and I’ve got dinner and no dishes. We pick up Micah from the high school. Our car smells like fries and I wonder how many days it will take to dissipate. When we arrive home we go to the table with our five paper bags and eat on plates and pass the ketchup and talk about our day. It’s fast food but we don’t eat fast, except for Jonah, who still needs to shower before I take him to Boy Scouts.
At 7:00 pm I’m back in the car yelling, “Jonah, come on.” He’s gelling his hair—it takes longer these days. I am patient. I sit in the car and check Facebook. The picture I posted of my parents on Veteran’s Day is getting lots of likes. They look handsome, young and beautiful and at the start of the lives. It’s 1951 and my dad is in Indiana with the Pennsylvania National Guard. Soon he will be shipping off to Korea and later Vietnam. Did they know then that he would serve his country in the Army and Air Force for 24 years, I wonder?
I was born the year he retired, in 1972. I never moved anywhere. I didn’t know that life, or that fathers were gone from home for years at a time. But looking at their picture now, thinking of Cooper in Iraq–the years we’ve spent apart–I know what it means. I’ve seen this photo my whole life, and yet it’s like I’m seeing it now for the first time.
Strangely, I feel reassured. I see their life, and the trajectory of my own, playing out. This photo marks their beginning. I’m just somewhere in the middle. They had difficult times and so do I, but they became who they are because of their sacrifice, not in spite of it. Married now for over 65 years, I hope I can do the same.
Jonah gets in the car. “I’m ready, put away your phone. Let’s go,” he jokingly orders. I take a deep breath and pull out of the driveway, onto the suburban streets. The sidewalk, in front of each home, is lined with flags. The sight of so many flags waving, red, white and blue, makes me proud. Even as I miss Cooper and wish he were here, I’m grateful he’s serving our country. I drop Jonah off at Scouts. He’s working on the orienteering merit badge. Orienteering began in Sweden. He’s already learned the skills they’re teaching tonight, but I’m not worried about him reading maps. I want him to learn another kind of orienteering—a compass for life, the Scout Oath. “On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and country [and] to help other people at all times.”
Back at home, I pull sheets from the dryer and make our beds. I feel grateful for clean sheets, for warm beds, for children to tuck in, for a country where we are free. We can sleep well tonight. It’s been a day of reflection and a chance to remember those whom we should never forget. I hug my kids just a little longer after family prayers and tell them, this one is for dad.
* means the name has been changed
The boxes arrived, all five hundred and twenty of them, over 18,000 lbs. I stood on my front porch watching as the truck pulled up, the flatbed carrying a dozen wooden crates—containers that had sailed halfway around the world from Sweden to California, via train to Salt Lake and finally to St. George. Inside were all our worldly possessions: family mementos, photos, Maggie’s favorite stuffies, our piano, books that felt more like friends.
Before this day arrived I’d pictured myself feeling overwhelmed, watching movers hoist boxes onto dollies, sweat on my brow, checking boxes off lists while simultaneously directing movers where to put what. In my imagined scenario I needed at least three of me, but that would mean a sequel to Multiplicity and no one needs that.
Unpacking is exponentially more difficult than packing. The mind gets boggled sifting through years of nostalgia while the rational brain tries to organize what feels like a 10,000 piece puzzle that’s been dumped onto the carpet (with one piece missing). It’s like playing Sudoku in the dark on a hayride with a hand tied behind your back—not impossible, but almost.
And yet, my sci-fi nightmare did not come to pass. No, I wasn’t alone. Thanks be to God for good neighbors. The retired couple who lives across the street came over when they saw my predicament and together they checked off boxes, removed bubble wrap from my furniture and unpacked, freeing me to direct the movers and get things organized.
After hours of work I figured they’d have other things to do, go home, get lunch, tell me to call if I needed anything else–that would have been reasonable. But they stayed the entire day and came back the next TWO days until all the boxes were delivered and most of them empty and hauled away! Not only that, but another neighbor had us all over for dinner that first night—the best enchiladas I’ve ever tasted. And the next night another neighbor, brought dinner to us, one of those comfort dishes that reminds you of your childhood. And still a friend from down the street, who moved from PA and settled in just before we arrived, dropped off frozen yogurt one evening for the kids and I.
Here I’d been ready to stress out and feel overwhelmed. I’d braced myself for the worst, but the worst never came. Thanks to neighbors and kindnesses too numerous to count, unpacking became, dare I say, enjoyable. My house was put together in record time and a week later, with my art hung mind you, I was hosting a bridal shower for 40 people. If you would’ve told me I never would have believed you, but it did happen—a true story of angels and friends.
But wait…there’s more…during that same week my in-laws came and grandpa built shelves in the garage with my boys while grandma spent the day entertaining Miss Maggie. That same day my sister-in-law dropped off a crock-pot of chili, which fed us for two days. And when shelves arrived via Fed Ex from Wayfair (love their stuff), my brother-in-law came over and helped Micah put them together.
The move in was like one of those Amish barn raisings, minus the barn. Helping hands doing what each could do…we went from living in St. George to being “home.” It was miraculous, biblical, Red Sea kind of parting stuff. They say how one person can make a difference and it sounds coined and trite, but NO REALLY, one person can make a difference. They can change the world! They changed my world. It was a week of grace and blessings and it came right in the nick of time. (Click here if you want to read a guest blog post I wrote for more about what happened BEFORE the move.) The only problem is, with neighbors this good, I never want to move again. Here’s to being “home at last” and to being the kind of neighbor we all want to have. Maybe we can’t solve the world’s problems but we can help a neighbor. If we each do what we can do, we might see a different kind of world.
It’s been four months since packing up and moving back from Sweden and we’re STILL waiting for our household shipment to arrive. I’ve got patio furniture set up in our living room and sleeping mats on the bedroom floors. We look like a KOA campsite only with really nice bathrooms. I miss my toothbrush holder; I miss my paper towel holder for the kitchen—it never let the roll get soggy or unravel on the counter. I miss things being organized. I miss hangers. Sure I can go out and buy all that stuff, but then what do I do when it arrives? It’s the conundrum of moving every couple of years…how long can I hold out without an iron and ironing board? How many irons does one person need in a lifetime? A lot if you live this lifestyle.
I keep thinking I’ll feel more settled once my stuff gets here, once I’m able to have some wardrobe choices and bikes to ride and Maggie has her toys to play with again. But I’m not convinced that will be the sum total of getting “settled.” Having your stuff helps, but the process also just takes time. I need to get reacquainted with America after our long-distance relationship kept us out of sync.
I’m adjusting to driving in America again. In the past three weeks I’ve successfully racked up three traffic tickets…one for speeding, one for following too closely, and one for switching lanes too fast. You’ve got to stay in each lane for approximately 2 seconds before moving over (now they tell me). Let me be clear, I’m an excellent driver. I got the Driver’s Ed award in high school, a fact that was mortifying, but nonetheless impressive. I KNOW how to drive, it’s just here cops actually pull you over and give you tickets for breaking the rules. (I miss Sweden.) And this S P A C E thing, there’s a whole different need for space in America. People like their space. They need room around them AND their cars and everything else. I get it, I just forgot.
It’s the same way at school. In Maggie’s class, the teacher has to remind the children NOT to hug and to give others “their space.” One mother told me her daughter was sent home with a note asking her to “Please talk to your daughter about not hugging other children.” Six-year-olds are very European. They show affection freely and like to embrace their friends. Hugging is one of those things that come naturally to children, so naturally that teachers must teach children to unlearn the behavior. It’s fascinating, really, to witness just how much culture our children absorb by unlearning and learning in America. (I think that’s another blog post.)
There are ways and traditions that once practiced are hard to change. Like giving flowers to someone who has invited you over to their home. In Sweden you’d never arrive at someone’s house empty handed, but twice I’ve given flowers to people who have reacted with mild shock. It’s not “typically” what’s done so people don’t know what to say or they say too much. In Sweden flowers were appreciated, but never cause for a scene.
The most challenging part of getting reacquainted, has been keeping up with the pace of life in America. Life moves faster in these Fifty United States. We’re all driving. There’s no time to sit on the public train and read. We’re driving kids to school, driving to pick up dinner, driving to work. The drive-through lane at Starbucks is packed. People don’t have time to sit and chat and enjoy their drink, they need to get it on the go and get to the next thing.
I joined a yoga studio thinking I might meet some people, people who were a little more chill and relaxed, after all, yoga is all about taking time for yourself and deep breathing. Uh-ah, nope. Unlike in Sweden, where the instructor allowed for a five-minute resting period (called Shavasana) at the end of class, followed by everyone saying “Namaste” to each other and lingering to chit-chat. Here, after an intense 55-minute workout the instructor says “Namaste,” so folks can get up and leave if they want during the resting period.
America, you can’t rest!! Seriously. Sit for sixty seconds will you? Just relax. Chill. Hug someone.
I’ve always said when I move to a foreign country, “Don’t judge, it’s just different, not wrong.” That little phrase helped me navigate the unfamiliar ways of locals around the world. But I’m finding I need the same phrase here, in my own country. And maybe that is who we’ve become…a nation filled with different people who do things differently. And that’s okay, I’m not judging, I’m just trying to figure it out so I don’t get another traffic ticket or hug someone who doesn’t want to be hugged or find myself the last one lying on the yoga floor studio after everyone has packed up and left Shavasana. I’ll figure you out America…just give me some time and a hug.
Had I written this post last week the tone would have been cynical and jaded. I would have had comments like, “Hang in there,” or “You’re doing better than you think” and the whole thing would have been reduced to an Amanda Wilkinson song, “It’s Okay To Cry.”
But cynicism wears old. I get tired of being frustrated with frustrating people. You know what I mean? It takes too much energy. I don’t have that kind of time.
Although, lately I have had time. It seems since Cooper left I got two extra months added into the last two weeks. I don’t know how it happened, but somehow I managed to fit 60 days into 14. Go figure. This year might be my slowest lived yet.
But two months lived in two weeks can do incredible things for a person. I’ve been able to gain new perspectives. Move forward. Forgive. (Time heals all wounds.)
I’m not harboring hateful feelings anymore toward the football coach who told me on the phone, “I don’t have time for development.” I called it coaching, but we had a difference of opinion. He explained that he’s got his “core team of players” who’ve been in the game for six years. Six years! Wow. I had no idea my son was too old at twelve to be taught the nuances of wearing molded polycarbonate padding and hitting into other players. The short story: We turned in the pads and went with soccer.
I’m only disappointed because here was an opportunity for Jonah to be a part of a team, learn integrity and the idea that you never give up. But the coach gave up on a National Championship winning rugby player from Sweden and instead of making him feel like a part of something worth striving for, he taught him to quit before you even start because some things aren’t for everyone. Well thank you. It was a loss of one kind and a gain of another. Winner of this round: Life Experience. ‘Cause life isn’t about fitting in, it’s about figuring out…figuring out who you are and who you’re going to be when the odds are stacked against you. If you can win on the gridiron of life then you will go undefeated.
And as for Maggie’s teacher, I’m over that too. I realize that some people in St. George don’t get our lifestyle, the fact that Maggie, at six years of age, has already lived in four U.S. States and three years in Sweden. It doesn’t make sense for some people. So when her teacher informed me that Maggie couldn’t participate in the class party celebrating the kids who did the summer reading/math packet, I calmly explained our situation, the fact that we weren’t here, that we were moving, that Maggie would be deeply disappointed to be excluded and sent to another classroom while all her friends were eating muffins and watching a movie. And when it looked as though things still might not go in our favor, I even threw in her dad was in Iraq. Now if that doesn’t play on your heartstrings!
“But did she do math and reading everyday this summer for twenty minutes?” was the teacher’s only response to my plea.
Umm…did you not just hear any of what I just said? She’s six. Her dad is in Iraq. We were moving. She’s new and has no friends.
Her final offer: “Write a note stating that she did math and reading everyday for twenty minutes and she can attend the party.”
Dumbfounded, I went home and wrote the note.
There comes a point when you just gotta do what you gotta do. And anyways, packet be darned, I read to her. We got a library card. I taught her what a quarter is and how to insert it into a gumball machine—that’s math! The important thing is, she went to the party. Not moving from Sweden, not her dad being gone, not our life circumstances are going to keep her from enjoying life and having a party.
Because if we’re talking math, then how about adding this up…life is hard and that equals we all need a little celebrating. Can’t we ease up and instead of excluding someone, say, come on, you’re invited, and you’re worth a party. That’s all I was trying to say. Maybe the message was lost on the teacher, but as for Maggie, she enjoyed every minute of her celebration.
Amada Wilkinson, we’ll dry our tears, we’ll hang in there; I know we’re doing better than we think. But you said it…it’s okay to cry.