Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Melancholy

I sat up in bed one night this week, shivering, listening to the wind as it scratched at my window screen. The next morning it was chilly, and fat gray-pink clouds floated past my kitchen in an expanse of incredibly blue sky. A scrawny white cat stretched out on the windowsill in a small patch of sunlight, trying to keep warm.

Just like that, fall is here.

I've been scanning cookbooks in search of soup recipes, looking online for new sweaters, and plowing through bags of chocolate butter cookies ever since those clouds appeared. Something about the change of seasons always makes me want to curl up in ball and hide - not out of sadness, not exactly. But it hits a certain place of melancholy for me, and it takes me awhile to find my feet again each autumn. It takes gallons of soup and piles of cookies and books and sweaters and hours spent staring out of windows, daydreaming, before I come to terms with the fall.

This is going to be a particularly damp and heavy season for me. My last fall in Amman, ever, which means I'm counting down days. A very lonely fall, for reasons you might guess. But also busy - no time to wallow, ever. I work, I cook, I write, I bake, I work out, I read, I sleep. I start over the next day, with no time for breaks in between. That's always easiest for me. Don't stop to think, or you never can start again.

It may sound as if I'm depressed, but I assure you I'm not. In some ways, fall is my favorite season. I think, in a strange sort of way, I enjoy the melancholy. I enjoy the sense that time is passing, that I need to grab ahold of what I want with both hands and refuse to let go. I like flashing back to autumns gone by, to think on the places I've been, the places I could still go. I like thinking back to my tiny house in Long Beach, to the coffee shop on cold days in Westwood Village, to my first fall in college, when I was still frightened and friendless, to that graduate school fall when you could hear the 'SC marching band from every point on campus.

I mean, sure: those days are gone, and they're never coming back. But what I have now? Its all good. It's plenty enough for me.

Mostly enough, anyway. It seems I've run out of butter cookies.

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Foreign Service Fishbowl

You know what's awesome about having a blog? People read it! It's fun to look at your stats and see people reading across the globe - why, this past week alone I had 27 hits just from the Congo and another 40-something from Mali. Really. Who's reading over there? And why, exactly? (Seriously. Drop me a line if it's you and tell me who you are.)

You know what sucks about having a blog? That's right: people read it. Even people right here in Jordan. I get hundreds of hits from Jordan, and even more from State Department IP addresses. I have to assume lots of these people know me in real life somehow.

Now I know: freedom of speech, yada yada yada. But the fact remains that not everyone at the State Department looks favorably on bloggers. And even if they did, well, you tell me: would it be a good idea to post my complaints in this forum, knowing as I do that there are people here at post who read this blog even if they don't particularly like me? (I know. I find it hard to believe too.)

If you've been reading for any length of time, you know I periodically shut down the blog and go silent for awhile, usually because I'm frustrated by too much attention or because I start to feel that can't write what I want to. I feel myself slipping into one of those phases yet again, and I'm trying hard to stay present. Because I need to write. And yet - I don't need to give any ammunition to the sharks in the fishbowl. You know?

Sometimes I love the fishbowl aspect of Embassy living, even magnified as it is by my blogging habit. Because, you see, it is nice to have people around who know what your troubles are. Home in the U.S., you're relatively anonymous, which can leave you without help in times of trouble. Here, overseas, most people who know me even just a little know that I'm struggling to hold down a rather challenging full-time job while still finding time to feed my family, all while trying to stay healthy and sane. They know of my constant worries about my faraway husband, and they know when I have health issues or work worries or writing goals to meet.

Someone accused me of being "clique-ish" awhile back, and I tried to hear her, really I did. But in the end, I decided she was wrong: it isn't clique-ish to seek out a group of like-minded people and then band together to help each other make your way in the world. That's not a clique: it's a support group, and everybody should have one. It's clique-ish if you shut other people out, certainly. But there is nothing wrong with finding your tribe and holding them close. I look for that tribe, at every post, and yes, I suppose you could argue that it's an exclusive group for me. I don't need a lot of friends. I don't have time for a lot of friends (see full-time job, etc., above). Here - as everywhere - I have been fortunate to find a small handful of close friends who make me laugh even when they drive me up the wall, who offer up a shoulder when I feel like crying, who help with my kids when I'm feeling overwhelmed.

I am grateful for this handful of people, the ones who listen without judging. My own small support group.

But, oh, the downside of the fishbowl! It can be punishing in here, when one small misunderstood word is magnified, repeated, misinterpreted.  When rumors start, they spread like wildfire, destroying everything in their path. It's painful to watch when good people are hurt by the tidal waves that threaten to swamp this small bowl of ours. And it's certainly not fun when the wave turns in your direction, or in the direction of your friends.

But it's a small community, and everyone within has a different understanding of what the rules should be. The little things - like whether you wipe down the equipment in the gym, or watch your kids in the playground, or give a proper thank you to the guy who pours your drink, turn into big things more often than not, as people suffer hurt feelings or imagine slights that simply weren't intended. A casual remark at a party, or a change of table at the cafeteria, suddenly seems to be an on-purpose insult. Add in the stress of dealing with the situation in the region, the uncertainty, the increased workload, the changing dynamics inside and outside the Embassy walls, the worry about family members here at post or elsewhere, and you have an emotional powder keg. It's easy to overreact, to attack, to assume the worst of others.

And no - I don't think you can compare our fishbowl to high school, though I've heard that comparison made at every post. After all, most people eventually graduate from high school, move on to college and re-invent themselves, leaving behind the scraps of their former selves that they didn't like all that much and becoming newer, better people in the process. But in the Foreign Service, your transgressions, even the imaginary ones, follow you from post to post to post. It's a small world. Quick: name a post, and there's a good chance I can tell you someone who is serving there, or has in the past.

People: It's a big scary world out there. We're all of us finding our way through the maze as best we can. And it isn't always easy to be kind when you see someone blocking your path with a clenched fist. But look again if you can: maybe that isn't a fist at all. Maybe it's an outstretched hand. Maybe that person is actually reaching out to you, asking for your help, or offering hers to you. Look again before you make the situation worse with your assumptions of ill-will.

You can't assume the worst about the Other. You just can't, or you'll sink us all.  What looks to you like a clique might really be a small circle of people trying their best to hold each other afloat, clinging to each other as they make their way across the waves. And it's quite possible that they'll hold you up too, if you let them, if you're brave enough to tell them you need help. Don't assume the worst, because when you do, that's always what you find.

Me, I'm trying to be kind, every single day. It isn't easy. Like the rest of you, I succeed sometimes, and then I'm enormously, unreasonably proud of myself. But, and here I'd imagine I'm also like the rest of you, I mostly fail. I can think of a few specific times here in Amman when I've failed big, when I've chosen the easy way rather than the kind way, when my sense of humor has hit the target wrong, or when my words have hurt instead of helped. That pains me. Yet still I try. I'm trying my best to be kind, to see the best in people, to meet them where they're at. I hope, dear reader, that you know this about me. And I hope you'll extend me the same courtesy. We're all in this fishbowl together, like it or not.



Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Ten


Kazakhstan, 2003

Virginia, 2006

Beijing, 2008

Spain, 2013
Jordan, today. He's ten!
Favorite present? Catcher's gear.
Sorry. You don't get to open his presents.

The cake? Delicious!
When you forget to buy birthday candles: improvise.

All four of my babies.


When you were a baby, Aidan, we thought we were going to lose you. We prayed so hard back then, that we would get to see you grow up healthy and happy. And here you are - everything we prayed for, and more. I love you, son, more than you can ever know.

Monday, September 9, 2013

This Means War

I know: I owe you a blog post. Apparently my radio silence has been troubling for some of you.

The thing is, everything in the region, along with everything in my head and heart, is in utter turmoil. I don't know for certain what to say other than:

"This post reflects my views alone and does not reflect the views of the United States government."

With that out of the way, I can add: write to your congressperson. Right now. It matters.

Other than that, though, what can I say? I work for the U.S. government. I can't really write in this space what I think about our probable next moves, or whether I agree with them. But I am here, in the middle east, where our probable next moves and the potential aftermath mean everything to me, to my family. This isn't faraway news for me. This is family, and friends, and home.

It is scary, watching this all unfold in real time just down the road. It is scary, talking to my Jordanian friends, who are worried about what all of this means for the future of their country. Not the future in some vague, undefined, my country tis of thee kind of way, but in a what about tomorrow? way. They are understandably frightened about what comes next for Jordan. And they are powerless to stop the storm they see heading their way.

I, too, am powerless to stop the storm heading our way.

All I can do is pray. Not for peace, exactly. I'm too jaded to think that peace is possible here. I think all sides will keep fighting it out, over days and weeks and even years, despite anything we might do or not do to intervene. I don't think my prayers can stop what's happening here, what's going to happen here. No, my prayers are selfish. My prayers are personal. Really? I'm just praying that my family, all of my family, stays out of the crosshairs. I'm praying for my friends here, too, that every form of potential tragedy passes them by.

Selfish prayers, indeed, I admit. But I am feeling selfish, and so I pray. In the middle of this awful, terrible, unstoppable storm, I pray simply: keep my loved ones out of harm's way.

You: pray too. And then, when you've finished praying whatever prayers you hold in your heart, write to your congressperson. Our government is using your voice to make itself heard in the middle east. You need to make sure that our government knows what you want it to say.
Please. Write your own stuff.