There are four main roads in Muscat, running more or less an east west direction, parallel to each other. Hugging the coastline is November 18th and to the south is Al Sultan Qaboose (pronounced Caboose), named after the revered Sultan. It zig zags from the Royal Police Stadium to the Airport and takes you most places you need to go. 23rd of July is a few degrees inland from there, a less assuming thoroughfare, running into the Muscat Expressway—the road I take to get to my kid’s school. With an American license I can drive, but in 60 days from arrival, I’ll need to register officially, do the paperwork and get a photo ID. I need to figure it all out, but right now I’m busy just driving. Lucky to be alive, I’d say, after going the wrong direction on a three lane freeway.
It’s easier than you’d think to make THAT mistake, especially if you’re used to turning left to go left and forget to turn right to go left. There are “slip” roads and “fly overs” and exits going one way then sharply banking the other. I liken driving in Oman to reading Arabic, it’s right to left when reading, and driving feels much the same way.
I was grateful to the cars honking behind me when I went the wrong direction, of course the arrows helped too, THREE TRAFFIC ARROWS POINTING DIRECTLY AT ME!!! The median was too high to Evel Knievel with my rental, so I swerved into the turn lane, waited for a couple of cars to pass, then peeled around James Bondesque style. I don’t know how I managed it, to be honest, that time of day is usually heavy with traffic, but thankfully I live to drive another day. Inshallah.
Yes I do have a GPS, but I only know how to program it to go home. On the upside, I can get as lost as I want and feel reassured of seeing my husband and kids again. Addresses are all but useless here, even ambulances don’t rely on them. Landmarks are more helpful for locating places. If you know the name of the mosque you live by, you can generally find your way from there. Taxi drivers don’t know addresses either. So you have to know where you want to go or fughetaboutit. Here’s the Grand Mosque. One of the largest and most stunning Mosques in all of Oman. This I can find.
I would be a lot less nervous about driving if there weren’t traffic cameras at each intersection and along all major roadways. Drive too fast and you’ll see a Flash Bam KABoom! (Really it’s just a flash). It means you got a ticket and if you try to leave the country they will detain you at the airport until the bill is paid. (That’s one way to collect revenue.) The other thing that slightly terrifies me is the possibility of running a red light. Not that I make a habit out of this, but if do you happen to zip through unawares you’ll pay a hefty fine and spend a couple of nights in jail. (Not on my, “Things To Do in Muscat” List).
Driving and getting lost is, however, on my “Least Favorite Things To Do,” list. I question my sanity each time I move to a new country and have to find my way around all over again!! Again? Why? WHY?!? Why do I do this? And then I go on a drive and get lost and see a camel. A CAMEL!! And I go, OK, getting lost is fun!! And I remember my favorite quote…A good day is a good day. A bad day is a good story. So it’s all good. It’s ALL good!!
It’s super great and getting better, cause I found a Facebook page called, “Where Can I Find In Muscat?” I asked the “Group” where I could get a good haircut, an essential first step when moving, and they responded to my plea. Gorgeous Hair. I found it driving there my first try! Nicky, the owner, trimmed my fringe (bangs to us Yankees), and gave me a new lease on life. She understood my fine, straight hair and more importantly, understood ME. For a few blissful moments I felt normal, something I haven’t felt much these past few weeks.
Most of the time I feel very aware of being different, the odd one out. I’m a white lady with short hair and jeans, an anomaly, a westerner, one of THEM. I feel looks of indifference. I’ve learned not to go around smiling my big ol’ American grin at people. Instead I’m a shy Mona Lisa, with a mysterious upturned lip. Gauging the crowd. It’s what you do instinctively.
I’ve been told by many long time expats, Oman is very safe. It is true. You can walk around at night. Even if you are alone, and a woman, you won’t have to worry. But feeling safe isn’t the same as feeling comfortable, or normal for that matter. And maybe getting lost on the map, with three arrows pointing in your direction, is a lot like feeling lost in life. Lost on the inside. It’s frightening and confusing when suddenly everything you know has changed. But here’s the thing…when you’re world changes, look for the camel. It’s there, you just have to keep searching, keep discovering, one mini life expedition at a time. I’ve been lost before (many, many, many times), and I’ve always found, getting lost is the first step to finding your way back home.
To every sojourner who journeys, the path is yours to make.
In the middle of my lawn sits an overturned flowerpot covering a 12-inch deep hole. Inside there’s a worn looking green valve that controls the water to my washing machine, a machine that sits in a casita (my laundry room), behind our house. The valve was shut off before we moved in. No a big deal, except for the small problem of the washer filling with rusty water coloring our white load (and my husband’s Brooks Brother’s Easy Care dress shirts), orange. Easy care, not so easy.
Life in Oman is one gigantic learning curve…. No drinking tap water. Weigh and label vegetables BEFORE taking them to check out, (or you can’t buy them). No smiling at men and making eye contact, they’ll think you’re interested, (explained my Aussie friend who’s logged 4 years in the region). Vanilla extract, NOT for sale. It contains alcohol and that’s strictly forbidden. But you can cheaply buy fresh vanilla pods. (Even better!) When traveling by cab, the fare must be negotiated before you take off. There are NO meters so taxi drivers set the price. If they’re smiling at you, you’re getting swindled. Cha-ching!
I’m making mistakes every day, figuring out how to patch together a life in a world that doesn’t feel like Disney’s “Small World” version. It feels big and fairly daunting, but a week and half into this adventure and I can report I’m also feeling a lot more at ease. Making a friend I can text for help or ask where to buy bacon (there are some “hidden pork rooms” in certain shops), has helped more than anything. Knowing other expats have adjusted to Oman and lived in the region 10, or sometimes more, years has made me think this is doable.
Right now I have on going lists, things that need done, like pre-registering at the hospital (otherwise they won’t treat you if you show up injured). I still need to get Internet (they are digging a trench and laying fiber optic cable to our house), registering my driver’s license and among other things, buying a car. This week when Cooper and I walked into a beautiful Toyota showroom (a popular car here), we couldn’t find a single person to help us. “Hello, hello?” I kept calling as we walked around the Prados. I laughed, because this would this NEVER happen in America!
So we walked next door to the Kia showroom and a man from Bombay greeted us and pointed out the safety features of a Sportage. Curtain airbags, back up cameras, a navigational system. During our Embassy briefing, we were told 80% of us would get into a fender bender. Umm, curtain airbags seem like a really good idea.
It’s going to take some time to do all the car stuff and everything else on my list. Eid Al Adha holiday is almost here. Eid Al Adha is one of two holy celebrations Muslims observe around the world. It’s to commemorate the willingness of Abraham to obey God and sacrifice his son Ishmael. (In the Christian world we believe Issac was the one being sacrificed). The holy days are set according to the cycles of the moon. The Imam selects the days and the government announces the public holiday. Until a few days ago, we had no idea that next week the kids would have ALL week off school, (Sunday to Thursday). Typically, Eid is three days, but this year it’s five. No complaints from my boys who are itching for beach time.
Which brings me to the best, most amazing (pinch-me-am-I-dreaming?) part of being in Oman, THE BEACH! It’s right out our front door. We can traipse bare foot to the sand and waltz straight into the Omani Gulf. No matter the blazing heat and temperatures, the water always feels perfect. The tide is gently mesmerizing, depositing glistening white shells, gifts from the sea, up and down the coast. At 6:30 in the evening, like clockwork, the sun descends down over the water. You can watch it as it moves, a big red glowing orb of molten heat. In it’s absence, the sky illuminates to a kind of ombre indigo blue, light to darkest at the top of the sky.
There are so many new sights and scenes and smells (they burn a lot of frankincense), it’s hard to absorb it all just yet. I’m still in a state of awe and wonder. The heat and humidity, they tell me, is getting better. Back in May it was 122 degrees, now it hovers around a more tolerable 88 with 70% humidity (and above).
My Aussie friend took me grocery shopping. Between 10-11 the call to prayer broadcast throughout the store. It was another one of those surreal moments I can’t seem to stop having. The extreme opposite of America where church and state have become so separated people go out of their way not to mention religion. Prayer has been removed from almost every institution in the states. Here you see prayer rooms everywhere, in public offices, airports, shopping malls. Green signs are posted along sidewalks in neighborhoods and near businesses where people can assemble for prayer, (although I haven’t seen anyone gathering).
For all the outward appearances of being a strict Muslim country, Oman actually feels pretty relaxed (compared to other countries in the region). Unlike other Muslim countries, Oman doesn’t seem to push the point. Prayer is on the airwaves but people are still going about their daily life, buying groceries, going to work, talking on their cellphones.
I was told Omani’s are very accepting of others because from the time a child starts school, they teach them to respect other Muslims and religions. It’s forbidden, if you’re Shiite and in a mosque, to point to someone who is Sunni or Ahmadiyya and say they are not welcomed. Muslims in Oman have the right to pray in every mosque. The Sultan wants peace in the region, not trouble.
Plus there are a lot of expats here, almost 50% of the people living in Oman are from somewhere else. People from the Philippines, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and lots of other countries. The UK, Canada, Australia and the US too. Oil and gas corporations draw a lot of expats to this region and so does the need for domestic help and construction workers. Everywhere you turn there are cranes lifting materials, and new building projects under way.
I feel somewhat of a project myself, starting from the foundation and working my way up. Everything I thought I knew has been deconstructed. My assumptions have been demolished to make room for, what I can only imagine. I don’t have all the blueprints. This is fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants-architecture of the heart. I only know to put one brick here and one brick there and trust this edifice of “life” is going to turn out. I’ll warn you, whatever challenge your facing, the learning curve can be lonely, and at times painful and often hard to wrap your brain around. But it’s never dull. Whatever you’re current project (read: challenge), keep building, enlist the help of others and when you don’t know what to do, just do something. Life requires momentum and going somewhere is better than nowhere, so keep moving with the curve, we’ll all get where we need to go…eventually.
As the news buzzes with controversy over “burkinis” on French beaches, I’m surrounded by burka clad women in shopping malls, grocery stores and the hotel where we’re staying. Living in European and US cities I’ve, of course, seen women wearing burkas and head scarves, but it’s another thing entirely to be in the minority, to be the only one NOT wearing the traditional religious symbols of Islamic dress.
Today as Maggie and I ventured to the mall attached to our hotel, we passed by a Dunkin Donuts, Gymboree and Children’s Place, as well as kiosks selling head scarves and stores displaying black burkas on mannequins. I watched Maggie, gauging her reaction, and to my surprise, she seemed unfazed by the newness of it all. I thought maybe I’d need to tell her not to stare, but I didn’t; somehow she knew this was our new “normal.” I suspect it helped that we found a Baskin Robins and got scoops of Rainbow Sherbet. And we did go into several toy stores, (for “birthday” market research). But admittedly, I was the one who felt strange and out of place to see so many women covered up, maybe as strange as it is for them to see me uncovered.
I’m still formulating first impressions and being careful to refrain from making snap judgements or assumptions, but it’s difficult to remember MY way is not the only way, or the best way. Even as I’m immersed in Omani life, it’s hard to grasp THIS is how things are done.
Men are everywhere and comfortably visible. They run everything at the hotel–the front desk, housekeeping, the café. It is a man who brings me extra toilet paper or fresh towels when I call. And the hotel has a separate WOMEN ONLY workout gym and pool. It’s fabulous, but admittedly, strange to see ONLY women.
Perhaps the most striking contrast for me has been our day at the beach. Our Embassy sponsors (and “insta-friends”), were kind enough to take us. I knew a strong dose of sunshine and a dip in the Omani gulf would be good for our jet lag. We packed our sunscreen, snacks and towels. Maggie and I wore our modest tankinis under cover-ups, the boys had on their usual swim trunks, t-shirts and flip-flops just like any other beach day, but when we arrived I could see it wasn’t going to be just like any other beach day.
Yes, the waters were lovely. The sun was enough to coax you into the sea without being unbearable. It wasn’t crowded but again…men everywhere. Men wearing shorts without shirts, wraparound skirts, wet sarongs tied at their waist (very visible I tell you!), swimming, gathering, talking easily with friends. But where were the women? When I scanned the beach more carefully, I did see a few, but no one was wearing a swimsuit and certainly nothing in the color fuchsia pink like mine! They were dressed in muted colors, wearing headscarves and dresses or skirts that flowed past ankles onto the sand.
I was so grateful to meet our new friend’s wife and their three small children playing in the water. She was wearing a swimsuit, but with a t-shirt over top. (I felt like the gal in the office who “didn’t get the memo.”) But amongst friends, I was fine. Still, if I’m being honest, I was self-conscience in my swimsuit. Not in an, “Oh no, I have cellulite,” kind of way, (I know that feeling), but like one of those dreams where you arrive somewhere and you’re still in your underwear. (You’ve had that one, right?)
Despite the shallow depth of the water, I bent my knees till my body was covered and remained that way for the greater part of an hour. We had fun and the sun felt amaaaaazing. But when it was time to get out, there was my self-consciousness again, me in my bright fuchsia pink swimsuit. Lovely. It only occurred to me just now, maybe this is how women in France feel wearing burkinis. Hmmm…
While quickly wrapping my towel securely around me, I noticed a young girl walking into the water, maybe 10 or 11 years old, wearing a pretty pink tunic, (something I’d buy for Maggie), only hers was paired with matching leggings and a swim cap. Literally a swim “suit.” My American friend told me then, “I’m considering buying yoga pants to wear to the beach.” I told her I thought it was a good idea.
We moved onto the grass and showered sand off of our legs. The call to prayer sounded in the distance. Chanting. The calls happen 5 times a day, the first one starting at 4 am. I’m told it has an added line, “Prayer is better than sleep.”
At that moment, all I could think about was sleep. My body was heavy with jet lag when my son leaned over and asked, “What are we going to eat for dinner?” Luckily our new American friend, who introduced us to another new American friend, (that’s how it works in the expat world), said, “How ‘bout I drive you to Papa John’s for take-out.”
Talk about an answer to prayer! He picked us up two large pizzas and a round of diet Coke’s and drove us back to our hotel. We showered and sat down to a hot meal and Netflix. I know this place isn’t “home” yet, not even close, but I’m sensing the possibilities. I’m also sensing there’s a lot more I need to learn and I’m willing to believe first impressions don’t give the whole story. This is only just the beginning, but at least we got Papa John’s.
We’re an hour from Dubai, the flight information displays on the small seat back monitor with live action digital simulation. I’m seated with my four kids, taking up half of the last row of the airplane; Cooper is still in Washington. In real time I watch as we pass over Tehran. The display is then interrupted with an image of a Breitling watch, “the official onboard time keeper.” (It’s Swiss Air, after all.)I have no sense of time. It’s 7:30 pm in Iran, 8:30 am in Los Angeles. Whatever. I’m eating ice cream. Movenpick. It’s cold and creamy and a nice diversion from my headache.
The closing scenes before we left were unduly stressful. It involved a last minute pedicure for Maggie and myself at the nail salon next to our hotel. Then a bad decision on my part, made while under the influence of a Vietnamese lady rubbing knots out of my calves. “Would I also like a hand massage and manicure?” Sure!
It was oh so good while it lasted. But afterwards we had to rush to get our Subway sandwiches, (which we had no time to eat until we were safely through security). And we had to gather our suitcases from two hotel rooms and drag all 8 of them, along with carry-on’s to the Marriott hotel shuttle. My newly glistening coral nail enamel now looks like melted wax crayons.
I pick at the bits of enamel that remain as we land in Dubai. 99% of the passengers disembark, leaving us, and couple of US college students to watch as cleaning crews gather up trash and wipe down seat handles. The plane is refueling. We wait. And wait. It’s another 40 minutes to Muscat, tacked onto our 7-1/2 hour journey to Zurich, 4 hour layover in Switzerland, and 7 hour flight to Dubai. My knees are achy, my ankles slightly swollen. My air cooling foam Sketchers from TJMaxx–worth every penny.
Maggie has watched all the good kid shows, boredom is setting in. Thankfully, theonboard flight monitor recalibrates. People are boarding, (all three of them). It’s nearing 10 pm and outside temperatures are 38 degrees Celsius (100 F). We have 350 kilometers (217 miles) left to go.
It will be time to sleep when we get there and I’m hoping my body will cooperate. I’m trumped up on adrenaline and Swiss chocolate. It’s been non-stop momentum since the movers arrived last week and we said our goodbyes to St. George. I’m still processing.
We begin to move down the runway and Maggie turns to me and says, “When the seat belt sign goes off you’re taking me to the lavatory.” Okay, seven year old. Since when did we say lavatory? Since when did a seven year old live in three countries and four states? Since when did this become our life?
I gaze at the monitor, our airplane is passing over Al Buraymi and Suhar and it occurs to me I have no idea where I’m going. I mean I know I’m going to Muscat, yes. But the culture, the people, the geography, the extreme temperatures, the geo-political climate. This is somewhere new and completely foreign.
I think back to the woman who sat diagonally in front of us who got off the plane in Dubai. She was in her mid-60’s, wearing a head scarf, her body turned and angled so she could see us, Maggie and I, and stare at us for long portions of the flight. She wasn’t the least bit concerned that I caught or held her gaze. We smiled at each other many times. And it was as if I could see my questions reflected in her expression-who are you and where are you going? Up until this somewhat odd interaction, I’d thought of moving to Oman as MY experience, my journey. But my one sided look at how this was going to affect ME and was misguided. It is never just about YOU or ME. It is our shared interaction with one other that informs our experience. My presence with my daughter, speaking English, somehow had meaning for this woman. And I realized after, with some seriousness and humility, that what I do and say and how I act will inform the opinions of others, not just about ME, but about the United States, about “the west.” We will be a reference point for “westerners,” and glances meaningful and in passing will make impressions.
I’m not sure what I’ll discover in Oman, but I know whenever we step into the unknown, we also enter new parts of ourselves. Be that a personal journey, a change in environment, a move, life will bring us out the better for it. As the Taoist say, “The journey is the reward.”
Everything depends on stickers. Okay, not EVERYTHING. But every THING in my house, my stuff, the contents of my little world. We’re about to move to Muscat, Oman and all of our household goods will get a sticker to designate where it will be sent…like orange means it will ship via air freight, blue for boat freight, green for things going into long-term storage. Then it will all be shoved into a truck like a Tetris game, sent to D.C. and ANOTHER moving crew will resort, repackage, and ship things where they’re supposed to go. Does this sound like a good idea to you?
I didn’t think so either.
The moving coordinator told me all this over a bad cellphone connection. “But what if a sticker falls off,” I asked, “how will they know in D.C. where it goes?”
The phone crackled and there was a long pause. “Uhhh, I guess they’ll have to rely on whatever the movers wrote on the inventory sheets.”
WHATEVER, the movers wrote, ah? Heaven help us! Our gigantic color by box number project is days away. I’m just hoping the crew outta Vegas gets their rest before cruising to St. George for three days of sticker fun. The coordinator assured me she explained the sticker system to the crew manager and they know what they’re going to do. Unless it was a better phone connection, I have my doubts.
But one way or another, this move is happening. I’m showing the house to potential buyers or renters. This week a realtor walking through asked where we were moving. I said Oman (and gave a mini geography lesson). He wanted to know if we were shipping our things or putting them in storage. I didn’t get into the whole sticker business, but let him know our things would be coming with us as he eyed our bookcase. “Isn’t that expensive to ship?” he asked, “Why don’t you sell everything and just buy new stuff?”
“Because,” I said, “we move frequently and that could be difficult to sell off things every couple years and buy new things.” I mentioned the government covered the cost of the move, to which he guffawed and said, “You mean OUR tax payer dollars.”
He was showing my house, about to enter my bedroom, so I resisted going all Jackie Chan on him, but bite my tongue I did. Tax payer dollars that I pay too, in addition to my husband living for a year at a time in places you wouldn’t send your least favorite pet to, I wanted to say. And by the way, he’s protecting YOUR freedoms, so you can walk around without the fear of getting blown up. Okay, I know, I get it, there IS waste in government, but when you start talk tax dollars and lump me in the equation, I’m going to bristle. Unless, of course, you’re showing my house, and then I’m going to be really polite.
I’m over it. (Mostly). I’ve got too many other things to worry about…selling our car, canceling the cable (note to self: next time get DISH), change our address, buy ANOTHER suitcase (how do these things keep losing wheels!?) and find a good book to read on the plane. And I’ll do all that free of tax payers dollars! No really, I AM over it.
I got an email today from the Embassy in Muscat regarding our new address. Included in the welcoming message was a thoughtful sentiment to, “Let us know if you need help with anything.” That touched me to know kindness is waiting on the other side of the world. It was nice to read, to know that people care and there are other expats living there who know where to buy sour cream, shop for shoes and what hair products hold up in 118-degree heat and 90% humidity.
My heart has been pumping just a little harder, knowing this move is coming, knowing that I’ll be seeing Cooper again soon, that we’ll be a family under one roof, even if that roof is thousands of miles from here. Regardless if stickers get put on wrong boxes or the Vegas crew botches the inventory, or if more realtors suggest inane things when they haven’t got a clue…it’s all going to work out in the end, because we’re together, because kindness beats unkindness, because family is what really matters—now how about we use some tax payer dollars and make that into a sticker!
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.)