Friday, August 30, 2013

Well, That's a Parenting First...

A bunch of us went to STJ's house for a barbeque tonight. We all brought our kids and took over their house, eating and drinking and laughing, trying to forget our last crazy work week.

It was nice.

Somewhere right around dinner time, we got word that Secretary Kerry would be making an announcement, so we tuned to CNN to hear the latest official word. As you might imagine, embassy folks here are all following the story - indeed, some of us are making the story. Weird to sit around debating the "should we or shouldn't we" with people who actually have a stake in the decision. This isn't some far-off land for us - it's a couple of hours up the road, and it's a place in which everyone who works at the Embassy has been heavily involved. No matter your job at the Embassy, you're probably engaged somehow in what's going on over there - monitoring the refugee camps, monitoring the press, working to make policy, or to give the policymakers the information they need to make the decisions for the rest of us. We don't all agree on what should be done, but we all bring an informed perspective to the discussion.

So we watched, and we worried and we argued the "what-ifs," all while the kids played flashlight tag in the yard.

Late into the night, three of the boys came in and started agitating for a sleepover, but this is a weekend when we all really want our kids close by. No one knows what's going to happen, or when, so we're holding our families as close as we can even while we know we'll have to rely on each other if the whole place suddenly goes to hell.

The older kids get this. But still: they want a life-as-normal sleepover. S asked me repeatedly if my son could spend the night, and each time I said no.

"Look," he finally said, exasperated. "They can't start the bombing campaign tonight. And if they start it tomorrow, well, this could be our last night ever for a sleepover."

I'm pretty sure that's a first in the history of parenting.

(Oh. And while I gave him points for an impassioned and logical argument? I still said no. Next time, Scoots. There will be a next time, I promise.)

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Crazy World Over Here

If you believe everything you read in the news, then you probably figure we're hours away from being splat in the middle of a war zone - a war fought with chemical weapons, at that.

Normally, my response would be to not read the news, but here, that's a big part of my job: monitoring the press, both foreign and domestic. So I read, and I worry, and I wait, along with the rest of the world.

It's a little bit different than usual, because my husband isn't here. He's in a war zone of his own, with his own worries - if you're following the news out of Iraq, you know that he had a particularly busy day today. Always during past crises, I've been "the wife of the RSO," which means nothing at all, really, except that people somehow think I know something, and they're constantly pressing me for details: will we be evacuated? When, where, how? Now, I'm just another body, waiting. No one asks me anything, no one needs me to talk them down from the ledge. I'm pretty anonymous over here. So that's different.

It's also different because my eldest child knows exactly what is going on. He and his friends at school have been talking about go-bags and chemical weapons and evacuations. They compare whose parents have packed their suitcases already, and whose parents would need to stay behind to work, and whose parents stay up late talking about where to go if we suddenly need to leave.

I've tried to answer his questions honestly and well, but let me tell you: nowhere in the parenting manuals does it give you an appropriate answer when asked, by your 13-year-old, "what happens if they launch chemical weapons at us?"

So he understandably worries about what he hears. I've told him: all of these things we have, in this house? They are just things. Nothing more. If we need to pack up and leave, none of these things go with us. I told him to think about his things: what matters, what doesn't?

It's a good exercise, really, even if you aren't facing a possible evacuation. What do you own that is important to you? Think about it, right now - it defines who you are, so think hard. What do you really need in this world? Who do you really need?

My go-bag is a blue plastic expandable envelope that's stuffed with school records, passports, house and tax information, insurance cards, shot records, wills.... That's the nuts and bolts that you need when you leave a place. Beyond that, I guess I'd bring some special photos, my iPad, my camera, my workout gear. That's all I really need to stay sane and connected in this world. For the rest, I can buy it all at Target if I need to.

When we first joined up all those years ago, I heard the story about a woman who had to evacuate in a hurry and stuffed her suitcase full of ball gowns. No undies, no socks, nothing but ball gowns. Everyone thought she was crazy, but she pointed out that she'd had those gowns made all over the world, just precisely how she wanted them. New undies, she could buy at the mall. The ball gowns were priceless to her. Funny story, yes. But that's a woman who knew what was important to her.

Anyway.

There is no news from here, other than to say that for now, we are here, with no plans to leave. And we are thinking about the people and things that are important to us. We are thinking about you.

Watch this space. If there's more to tell, I'll tell it here.


Monday, August 26, 2013

First Day of School

Today was the first day of school, and let me just say, I had it going on! I mean, all four kids were dressed, breakfasted and brushed-of-teeth ahead of schedule. The girls were wearing actual matching outfits - though by matching, I don't mean the girls matched each other, because that would be an insane level of achievement. No: I mean that each of them, individually, had on pants and tops that matched. And their hair was properly done. Oh, and all four kids had packed lunches, actually in their backpacks (I had to double-triple-quadruple-check Ainsley's)! All of this by 7:15, when we went out to wait for the bus. (There's no schedule the first week, so you just have to sit out there and wait until the bus shows up.)

Now, before you all start nominating me for mother-of-the-year, I should confess that none of the kids had an actual water bottle, as required by the school. And the school supply list was tragically underrepresented in our backpacks. Both girls were supposed to bring pencil bags, but I couldn't find last year's bags, and I couldn't be bothered to buy new ones, so instead of actual pencil bags, I tossed a pencil or two directly into their backpacks, hoping the teachers wouldn't notice the missing pencil bags.

Whatever. I never said I was perfect. And neither will the teachers.

So there we were, the picture-perfect-family-if-you-don't-look-in-the-backpacks, waiting for the bus. Which, of course, never came.

7:15 turned to 7:25, which became 7:30. Still no bus.

Aidan and Kyra were kicking a soccer ball back and forth. Kyra wound up and kicked the ball in a perfect, glorious arc - straight into Ainsley's stomach. Ainsley doubled over and began howling in pain, crying and snotting and ruining her cute little pigtails in the process.

7:30 became 7:35. Still no bus.

The strap on Kyra's new shoe suddenly snapped off. I told her to run inside and find a new pair of shoes. She ran. So, of course, moments later, what should appear at our gate? That's right: the school bus. Of course.

Tear-streaked Ainsley and her brothers climbed aboard without a farewell hug from me. I was busy frantically screaming in the house for Kyra to hurry up, for the love of god, or the bus would leave without her.

She ran to the front door, still wearing the broken shoes, holding another pair aloft. I had no idea if the second pair would fit or not, but I threw her on the bus anyway and told her to figure it out along the way.

There was some mom riding the bus, a woman I didn't recognize. She sort of looked at me aghast when I poked my head in the door and shouted "Did Aidan make it on the bus? Has anyone seen my son in there?" Whatever, new mom, whatever. If you'd seen me fifteen minutes ago, you would have been in awe of my stellar mommy-hood. Swear it's true.

That was our first day of school. Tonight, all four kids are pleased with their teachers and classes and friends. Which is good. Also good? I survived my summer of single parenthood! Next up: surviving the school year. And possibly finding the missing pencil bags. Stay tuned.

For anyone out there (read: grandparents) who is interested in a little trip down memory lane, here is where you will find last year's first day photos. And the photos from 2011. 2010 is represented, as is 2009. 2008 is somehow missing, but the picture made it into a side-by-side comparison with 2009. And then there's 2007, the year I started this blog: Shay was in 2nd grade at the International School of Beijing. Aidan was a pre-schooler. Kyra was barely one year old. And I hadn't yet gotten pregnant with Ainsley, or lost my hearing - that was all still a few weeks off in my future. You'll love the photo of me on my Chinese bike in 2007 - seriously go check it out.

And here, for those of you who are still reading (Hi Nana! Hi Bart!), are today's photos.



Kindergarten

2nd grade


5th grade
8th grade







Ainsley with our awesome boab, Reda.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Make New Friends, But Keep The Old....

On Thursday evenings in the summer, people gather at the Embassy for dinner. We bring the kids, who swim or run in the playground while we eat dinner and chat. It's usually pretty fun, barring the occasional scandalous misbehavior, and it's nice to gather with friends, especially when nobody has to cook or drive any distance.

Tonight, though, was a bit different for me. I was tired - so tired! - after a long week back at work and lots of catching up to do at home. So I really wasn't in the mood. The kids wanted to go, though, so I packed the swim bag and we headed out. For various reasons, none of the people who usually invite me to sit with them were there except one, and she left early. I decided to hide out at a table by the pool and read a book for awhile rather than trolling for someone to talk to.

Pretty much as soon as I opened my book, though, my blackberry buzzed. I checked, and it was my friend Kate S, IM'ing me all the way from distant Panama. Instead of reading my book, I spent the next hour exchanging texts with Kate. She was posted here until one year ago, so she knows the Thursday night scene. I described it for her anyway, and we back-and-forthed about the usual stuff: who's here, who's gone, who's bidding, who's still good for a laugh. She regaled me with tales of her misadventures as well. (She may be the only Foreign Service officer I know who has managed to break her own nose in the line of duty. That takes talent, people. Talent and dedication.) We laughed and talked and laughed some more, over a whole lot of nothing, and a whole lot of everything.

I've spent the greater part of the past week feeling sorry for myself, for reasons mostly indefinable or unexplainable. So it was nice to talk to an old friend for awhile, to forget about the things that have been troubling me. It's been awhile since Kate and I last chatted. I sort of forgot how much fun we used to have. We're a lot alike, the two of us, and we used to work just down the hall from one another, which meant we spent a good chunk of our free time hanging out.

I've been here for three years now - long enough to make plenty of friends, of course, but also long enough that I've had to say goodbye to some close ones as well. Tonight, when I was feeling sort of melancholy, it was nice to be able to turn to an old friend to cheer me up.

Thanks, Kate, for making me smile. I miss you still. And after an entire year of separation, I'm finally able to forgive you for giving all of those chocolate-covered almonds to Bart, and none to me.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Week So Far

"How was your trip?" my boss asked me on Sunday morning as we walked together to our first meeting of the day.

"It was great!" I replied enthusiastically. "We went to th-"

Right there she cut me off.

"Listen," she said. "Later. There's a lot going on that you need to know about."

And from that moment on, my first week back at work became a mad scramble of phone calls and emails to Washington and press releases gone awry and ohdearlord how many emails are in my in-box, anyway?

I need a vacation.

Remind me some time to tell you the story about how yesterday I was pretty sure the Secretary of State himself was going to fire me. Yes: I'm that good at my job.

Okay but I still kind of secretly love my job. When I'm not busy hating it.

If I could just figure out how to feed my kids and do my job and sleep maybe 7 straight hours, all in a single 24 hour period, my life would be pretty darn good.




Friday, August 16, 2013

Home Again. Whatever that means.

Our plane touched down with a hard thump a few hours ago in Amman, and I was immediately reminded of the time we hit the ground hard when we arrived in Armenia in 2001. Bart grabbed my hand back then and turned, laughing, to ask "what in the hell are we doing here?"

This time, of course, there was no Bart. Just me and the kids, navigating through customs and baggage claim before finding ourselves in the arrivals hall, scanning the crowd for a sign with our name on it. But the driver I'd hired wasn't holding a sign - he recognized us from our trip out, and waved us down joyfully. "Welcome home," he said as he took my suitcase and led us out of the hall. The girls grabbed both of my hands as we walked out into the dark dry night.

An ambulance crossed in front of us, lights flashing. Just as it passed by, a group of Jordanian musicians broke into raucous song behind us in the terminal. Still gripping my hand, Ainsley danced to the beat and swung her pigtails while Kyra speculated that maybe someone important was getting married in there.

We reached the car. While the driver loaded our luggage and the kids argued over who would sit where, I scanned the terminal for the ambulance. It had backed into a big double door, far from the crowd, and was either off-loading or on-loading a patient. A medevac?, I wondered idly. I watched as ambulance personnel scrambled under the flashing lights while the Jordanian musicians played on, unseen, somewhere in the terminal. I thought back to my own worst medevac, when my blood-soaked self was rushed to the airport via lights-and-siren ambulance and loaded onto a tiny medevac plane, somewhere in Central Asia, back in 2002, and I said a little prayer that whatever was happening in that ambulance wasn't nearly so traumatic or bloody.

Loaded in the car at last, we headed down the highway toward our house. The van driver chatted in Arabic on his cellphone, one hand gripping the wheel. A Mercedes barreled past, cutting off another car in a narrow miss. The second driver honked and began chasing the Mercedes down the road, weaving around traffic in a fit of Jordanian-style road rage.

We passed the darkened baseball field. Cars were lined up outside the fence, their occupants barbecuing and picnicking in the fields next to the roads, grills glowing in the night air as hijab-clad women chatted nearby. In an empty field just up the road, we saw several Bedouin tents clumped together, along with two UNHCR tents that had somehow made their way to Amman. Three camels were tethered outside the tents. Two kids with flashlights ran down the highway between us and the camels, heading toward the tents.

It was all so familiar, and yet so foreign, that I couldn't quite take it all in. One minute at a beach house in Spain, surrounded by family, the next on a dark highway in the middle east, still with my kids, but far from my sister, my brother, my parents, my husband.

We pulled up to the house and as I searched for my keys, Ainsley held two small paws up in the air, saying baobao, mama - that's her baby way of saying "pick me up" in Chinese. China - yet another place that holds my ghosts, that used to be home but has no meaning to the me of today.

I unlocked the door, and we were home at last. The refrigerator is empty, the suitcases are full. Laundry and shopping both call. I am exhausted. Yet here it is, 4 a.m., and I cannot fall asleep, thinking as I am of faraway places that used to be home, from California to Kazakhstan. I am missing my friends and my family all across the globe, and I am thinking of people I love who aren't with me, who can't be with me for all sorts of reasons big and small.

Yet I am home. The dog is snoring at the foot of the bed. All four of my babies are sleeping, dreaming dreams of beaches and cousins and sunsets, I hope. Whoever was on that ambulance is on her way to her fate, and those singers in the airport were no doubt paid for their services hours ago.

My brother's family is already stateside again. My sister leaves Spain in a few short hours; my parents in three days. My husband is across the border in faraway Baghdad, where so many people were killed in bombings today that it boggles the mind. How is it I allowed him to go there, when he really should be here, unpacking suitcases and helping with the laundry?

He should be here, because here is home. For now, anyway.

It seems I'm home.


Saturday, August 10, 2013

Dear Diary...

Well, I'm having all sorts of big adventures over here on my Mediterranean mountaintop, and yet I'm still having trouble blogging.

Problem is, I'm really not a fan of "Dear Diary" style blogs. You know: today I went here, then I did this, after which we... and so on. But it takes me awhile to process the things I'm seeing and doing. My writing brain lags far behind my eyes most days. And so I struggle, wanting to tell you what I'm doing, but not wanting to get all dear diary on you.

That said.

This morning my sister and I spent some time running up hills, lunging and squatting and generally acting like crazy workout freaks. Because we are crazy workout freaks, sort of. We both like working out, and we both like eating every last thing Spain has to offer (to say nothing of the sangria and piƱa coladas), so we are spending our mornings working out before turning our afternoon efforts to consuming vast piles of paella.

We are moving an army of kids from place to place to place (okay, admittedly more than 50% of the kids are mine, but still...). There are 6 adults and 7 kids, all needing to be fed and clothed and entertained, which means that at times it feels as though we are moving from breakfast to cleanup and immediately on to lunch prep before heading into dinner.

But this is okay, because my brother and my sis-in-law are both fabulous cooks who don't seem to mind cooking scrambled eggs and bacon for 13, or barbecuing enough chicken kebabs for everyone. Which means I have been relegated to the lowly role of sous chef, and that's not such a bad place to be. I can chop carrots and slice tomatoes with just half of a functioning brain, which works out perfectly if I start on the sangria at 5pm. Not, you know, that I'd do anything that crazy. But you know: if I were to decide to start drinking before five, well, I guess it would work out okay.

The cousins are all having fun swimming and playing and bickering. Ainsley is driving everyone crazy with her 5-year-old antics. But she's cute, so we all forgive her, eventually.

And that is the story of us, today, as much as I can tell it. I'll be back soon with more, dear diary of mine! For now, though, there is sangria and chocolate in the fridge. Gotta run...


Friday, August 9, 2013

My Small Flamingo Dancers

I am sitting by the pool, writing while eating Spanish olives and ham with melon.

Life is good.

My sister and I went hiking this morning, trying to find the path to the beach. We failed, but it was such a nice morning to be out in the middle of nowhere that I think we may attempt to get lost again tomorrow.

Yesterday was spent walking through Valencia. We didn't get far - we had seven kids in tow, after all - but it was fun to explore a new city together, watching all of the grand kids interact with their grandparents.

Today the girls are dancing around on the pool deck in their new pink "flamingo" dance dresses, making videos to send to their daddy. Ainsley is singing as she dances. The words to her song go something like this:

I am a flamingo dancer,
And I miss my daddy so much!
But I will get to sing for him on Skype!
And I like my mommy too,
Coz I am A. Flamingo! Dancer!!!!

Seriously? So cute.

Ainsley does miss her dad more than I expected she would. She talks about him non-stop, asking where he is and when he'll come home. Last night as we ate dinner, she sat nearby, staring pensively off into the distance. When her uncle asked what she was thinking about, she answered, "I miss my daddy. Why couldn't someone else go to Baghdad instead?" and she started to cry. That broke my heart, it did.

But all in all, she is happy, even if she doesn't stop talking about her daddy in faraway Baghdad.

I know the other kids miss him, too. I can tell by the way they act - all just a little bit off. But she's the one who is most vocal about it.

So. We are having fun, eating and swimming and dancing and playing. But we are missing our daddy, and we are all-too-aware of the empty space in the room where he ought to be.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Nineteen

Nineteen years ago, I said I did.




I still do.

Happy anniversary, z.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Up on Our Mountaintop

If you follow the news, then you know that our Embassy in Amman is one of several - many, actually - that closed for the week due to a serious threat against us. Your tax dollars are still hard at work, though, no worries, as everyone at every closed Embassy is working from home as needed.

There are always threats against our Embassies. This one made the news because of the scale of the threat. Usually you don't read about the threats or the actions taken to protect our personnel. Heck, I usually don't hear about it, and I live and work in the middle east.

Anyway. That's not what I'm writing about today.

I'm not even in Amman today.

I am high on a mountaintop overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. As I type, the sun is about to set behind the mountains. I'm sitting on a wide tiled porch, looking down at the water far below. A strong breeze has kicked up, knocking through the bougainvillea and palms. It looks like California to me. The water, the wind, the trees - all of it combines to make me feel curiously homesick.

This is odd. Because actually, I'm not here alone. I am here with my sister and her daughter; with my brother, his wife and their two kids; with my parents and of course with my four kids. We're only missing Bart.

It's a slightly belated 50th anniversary gift to my parents, this family reunion on the Mediterranean. We are eating too much, drinking too much and laughing too much. We are swimming and reading and cleaning off skinned-kneed kids - all marks of a holiday well spent.

It is all quite lovely, up here on our mountain.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

What is Brave?

You must be so brave, she told me.

This, I suppose, because I am living here in the middle east, on my own with four young kids.

That's supposed to qualify as brave, I guess.

The thing is, though, I'm not brave at all.

I'm afraid of so many things: lightning, and talking to strangers, and driving down narrow windy roads, and making a fool of myself.

Yes, I'm here, but I'm not always here, in the middle of things. You'll find me most often at home, in front of my computer or reading a book. Not exploring the little shops downtown, or searching out some odd archeological site, or hiking a barely marked trail. Sometimes I wish I were one to do all of those things without a second thought, but I can only stretch my skin so far before it tears, you know?

Overseas, I tend to seek out the ordinary, the comforting. I try to find the things that make sense to me - the produce aisle in the grocery store, weirdly enough, offers a strange sort of comfort these days, because I've been here long enough to recognize the rhythm of the seasons by the produce on offer. Cherries are disappearing, sadly, but when the first figs of the season appeared in their place, I smiled a big smile, thinking of last summer's fig season and feeling oddly at home. Because of figs.  I know: that's just plain weird.

So, no. I'm not particularly brave. From the outside, I suppose my life looks brave enough to someone who hasn't tried it. But being brave isn't about moving far from home. Being brave is about standing up for others, or speaking your mind when you know what you have to say isn't popular. Being brave is about trying to do something even when you're pretty sure you'll probably fail. It's writing the book. It's inviting the neighbors over. It's sitting at a table in the lunchroom with strangers, hoping they might become friends. It's asking for help when you need it. It's doing the right thing even when it hurts to do it.

All of that, to me: that's bravery. Not this. Never this.

And by that measure, I'm far from brave.

But I'm trying.


Friday, August 2, 2013

Nothing to See Here

My dear sweet husband tells me I'm not blogging enough. It's hard, though, to compete with his stories from Baghdad. He's taken to writing home every Friday (and by "home," I mean that he's writing to me, along with my parents, in-laws, brothers, sisters and a select few others).

I can't compete with his stories, truly I can't. My life seems downright boring in comparison. If only I could copy-and-paste some of his stories, but alas - I've been sworn to secrecy.

I can tell you that he isn't exactly loving it there. The job is interesting, of course, and he has great respect for his DS colleagues and others on the ground there. But I think - if I can speak for him here - that he really just misses his family, even more than he thought he would.

It's nice that we're in the same time zone, because we can talk after work, at bedtime. But the problem is, he's sitting in his little apartment, bemoaning the fact that he's lonely, that he misses me and the kids, that it's just eerily quiet over there.

I want to be sympathetic, I do. But it's bedtime here, and there are teeth to brush and jammies to find and books to read and get back in your bed right now and all I can think is, these kids are driving me up the wall, or maybe what I wouldn't give for some boring alone time in another country somewhere.

So I guess you could say we are at opposite ends of the same problem. Who has it worse? He does, definitely. But it isn't always easy to remember that in the moment, when there are four kids clamoring for a piece of mommy.

Work carries on. Except for this Sunday, when the Embassy will be closed. I have other plans for Sunday, anyway. Big plans. I'll tell you about them some other time, though. For now: I'm off to bed.

Lame update, I know. But better than nothing, right, oh husband of mine?
Please. Write your own stuff.