All Grown Up

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This is the first Memorial Day with my father in the ground. The first Memorial Day that one of my parents is in a grave that needs to be decorated, and I cannot be there to do it. I am one-thousand, one-hundred and ten miles away, and it hurts to be missing out on this simple gesture — a punctuation at the end of the last few years of Awful.

I was there to hire a lawyer when he wanted to divorce the spouse who he suspected was harming him. I was there to buy the clothes that he liked, Western shirts with snaps, no buttons due to his arthritis. She left him at the nursing home with nothing but sweatpants and a few white T-shirts. He was embarrassed to go to the dining hall because he felt that he was wearing pajamas in public.

I was there to get the forensic tests that alarmed the prosecuting attorney and initiated a criminal inquiry. I was there to show the judge enough red flags to quickly rule in my favor and order him protection. I was there to find the bank account that she bled of his inheritance four days after he fell gravely ill.

But I am not there to bring him flowers today.

I bought him a phone so that he could connect to the friends and family from whom she gradually cut him off, systematically isolating him. I was there to file a missing person’s report when he could not be reached by calls or email. I was there to learn that she had moved my father, 20 years her senior, to a town two hours away, and kept it a secret from his loved ones. The group of retired federal corrections officers that met for breakfast once a month was missing him.

I spoke up for him at court when his lawyers failed to. I demanded to be allowed to advocate for him when his legal guardian refused to — and again the court ruled in my favor. I was awarded access to his medical records to scrutinize and found lies and inaction — and again the court ruled in my favor over his guardian’s objection.

And when it was over, during the four-day blur that followed his death, I chose the casket, a prettier and more expensive one than his guardian dictated. I wrote the funeral program, published the obituary, and ordered a glorious floral spray in autumn colors –he died in October, the same month as his birth. I procured the DD214 that secured his place of honor at the Missouri Veterans Cemetery, a basic record that his spouse and his guardian had refused to request despite my multiple pleadings over the course of three years.

I have not seen Dad’s grave since the day he was laid to rest. That evening, my husband and I went to see where he was buried. The gold, red, and orange flowers burst brightly against the dark fresh dirt. Grass certainly covers it by now. I have not seen the simple white marker that the cemetery engraved with his name, birthdate-hyphen-death date, Marine Corp, Korea, and the cherub emblem according to the form I filled out.

I filled it out. It is my name on the government forms, my signature, my address that the memorial certificate was mailed to. Nary a squeak of protest from the still barely legal spouse who had nothing more to gain. No proclamations of innocence nor demands to participate in his funeral. How quietly the guilty go…

The graveyard grounds are beautiful, well-suited for the final resting place of thousands who wore the uniform and traveled the world to make our own country stronger and safer. Far too many modest white markers stab the earth here, including one for my mother’s parents, marked with Grandpa’s service in France and Belgium.

Dad lies amongst those he revered the most for the rigors of combat and sacrifices that they endured, but he was spared during his enlistment. Still, I know that he was glowing with pride as he felt the Honor Guard ceremonially remove his casket from the hearse, stepping in time to the shouted commands.

Loved ones who live nearby will wander the bucolic field today to find their veteran’s graves. Kids will play hide and seek amongst the trees and white upright slabs, too young and restless to understand how the dead there were once young and restless as well.

Respectful grown-ups will daintily lay flowers on the grave of a parent, friend, or other loved one. Another layer of melancholy will fall on them at the sight of all the undecorated, unflowered stones. The cemetery caretakers will stake obligatory tiny flags on every plot but many of the dead will not feel the heat of green plastic stems melting in the sun and polyester roses that bloom perfectly fluffy, rain or shine.

I should be there, traveling along the picturesque road that winds by the river’s side where tendrils of creeping jasmine and tangles of trumpet vine cling to the oaks and elms. I should be driving under the shade of the dense canopy of those trees. I should be approaching the entrance to the cemetery with the handsome iron gates that close at dusk, tucking in for the night those who rest in its grounds.

I was there for all the other Awful.

 

 

 

A Fleecing in Mumbai

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The breeze is heavy with heat and stench. It carries particles of pollution and garbage, microscopic ashes from fires that never fully extinguish. Dark foamy water laps at the seawall, gagging on rotten hot fish.

I am smothering and squinting in the scorching India sun and my head throbs from the cacophony of horns and motors from cars, lorries and mopeds. Every moment in India is a violent assault on the senses.

The Port of Mumbai is home to the ornate Gateway to India, a monument that commemorates the first visit to India by a British monarch. King George and his Queen Mary entered the colony at this spot in 1911. Immense and ornate with intricate carvings, the stone arch and surrounding promenade is abuzz with tourists and darting children. Street merchants compete against their friends to sell their postcards, viscose scarves, and Rajasthan marionettes. Mocha skinned ladies with long black hair in plaits wear saris in every brilliant color and the metallic embroidery shimmers as the fabric floats in step. Its neighbor is the majestic Taj Mahal Palace Hotel that regularly hosts world dignitaries and celebrities.

“Miss! Miss!”

I heard her before I saw her. This is the most unpleasant thing about India—the moral conflict regarding beggars. It is impossible to deny a begging child, but there is a societal push to discourage supporting them on the streets in efforts to lure them into school. But I don’t have the time to get caught up in a flurry of distractors, 25 more pairs of outstretched arms, if others were to see me fill her hands, a lesson learned when I was based in New Delhi and Jeddah. I have an hour long road trip back to the hotel and am working an early flight to China in the morning.

“Miss!” She is striking in her bright yellow billowing chiffon salwar. Her black eyes are lined with kohl, giving her the appearance of a tiny, more mature woman. I dig in my purse for a few rupees.

“No! No! I don’t want money. But, can you buy my sister some rice? Are you Christian?”

And there is the hook. Oh, she’s good. She learned at a tender age how to ensnare White Privilege.

Her hand reaches out to me, cupped and open, like a baby bird’s beak, ravenous and trusting that feeding is imminent. She has a red string around her wrist, a Hindu symbol of a brother’s commitment to protect his sister. But she also has two colorful pendants hanging from a black strand around her neck. One is the Virgin Mary. The other is Shiva, the Hindu deity who creates and destroys the world. She’s got several of the world religions covered. Pretty clever to enhance her income at this popular touristy spot.

“Habibti, I really don’t have much time. I’ll just give you some money to buy the rice?”

“No. no. I cannot take your money. The store is very close. My sister is hungry. Please. Can you?” Her speech is melodic with the lilting Hindi accent and her little head gently wags from side to side as she pleads.

She seems desperate for food but determined to not take my money. I of course, cannot resist.

The store was not so close, and she led me through some alleys and turns and I am feeling foolish and anxious for continuing with her. I look back to take a mental picture that will find my way back if we go too much farther. There are fewer and fewer tourists and every turn finds an emptier and more narrow passage. Every time she senses my hesitation and reassures me, “It’s just right here.” We round another corner and she disappears; she has stepped into the store.

It is smaller than a closet. Really just a booth in the sprawling web of shops in this part of Colaba, its walls painted a bright, peeling robin-egg blue. The man minding it sees her and scolds her with a glare. She silently responds to him with a satisfied expression, like the retriever who drops the wounded pheasant at his master’s feet. His scowl softens and looks to me.

“May I help, Miss?”

I look at the girl and ask her, “What do you need?”

The question is interpreted as an open-ended offer. The modest request for a bit of biryani for her sibling expands to add a large can of powdered milk. She stands on her tippy toes and pulls herself up to put her chin on the counter and tilts her head to look at me sideways, measuring her catch.

“Ahn-yahn?” A sweetly sly grin slowly appears when she detects no opposition. The man puts an onion on the counter.

“Two, please, “ I add.

“Ool!” Emboldened and excited, her smile broadened, and she jumped up and down, Cooking oil for the burner stove.

“Okay, that’s good. How much?” I fumble with the tangled wad of cash in my bag, careful to not expose the entire amount or risk buying the rest of the shop’s inventory.

The man hands her a bag of rice and the onions and sets the oil and milk to the side for her return. She disappears running, heavy and gleeful with her booty.

Frazzled, I give him the charged amount and leave in a rush, clueless on the prices I just paid because I can barely add in dollars, let alone convert to rupees.

“You know what she’s doing with that, don’t you?” I turn to see a woman who apparently witnessed the transaction. She is also Western, possibly Australian, and her bobbed gray hair sticks to her sunburned neck and face, matted with perspiration. She looks like she belongs here, clad in her hippie-style flowing chambray skirt and white t-shirt.

“Well, it’s food. She’s poor. It will tie her family for a few meals,” I replied. The woman sounded annoyed by what she had seen. I wondered if I would ever sound so blasé and desensitized to a young girl begging for food for her hungry baby sister.

“She wouldn’t take your money. Asked you to buy things for her instead and took you to her family’s store. That big bag of rice? She will divide it into smaller portions and sell it. It’s their new scheme. They think it looks less like begging if they have you buy food rather than hand them money. The government is cracking down on the beggars in the cities, especially in tourist areas.”

I am momentarily offended. Well, that little…! I had lived in India for several months—I thought I was more street smart! How did I just get fleeced by a kid? Indian merchants practice liberal pricing on their wares. There is the Indian price that a local will pay and there is the foreigner price that is inflicted upon the naïve visitor. I am quite sure of which scale determined my purchases.

And then, the flush of punishing shame rains over me. I think of the incomprehensible disparity that lies between this impoverished little girl and the immense wealth of the client who brought me here.

I recall the untouched, obscenely expensive catering that I threw away at the end of the 9-hour flight on a fifty million-dollar jet. Perfectly picked, artistically shaped slices of fresh mango, cantaloupe, and pineapple arranged over ruffled green and amethyst kale on a silver tray, garnished with pink and white plumeria blossoms. A carton of 2% and skim milk and a liter of tangy orange juice. Brilliant, hand-painted dishes of colorful chopped vegetables for dipping ordered for, then left unconsumed by the single passenger on the flight from Athens to Mumbai. Tender sesame-glazed chicken skewers–10 pieces in tin foil for reheating. A quart each of minestrone, seafood bisque, and creamy tomato basil gourmet soup. It was all wasted and is only a representative portion of the food that found its way from the galley to a landfill that day.

In my grocery store in the Midwest, one hundred dollars would buy all the items to assemble the menu for this single flight, but the CEO who travels by private jet effortlessly pays one thousand five hundred dollars. One…thousand…five…hundred…dollars. Invulnerable to the growling beast of poverty, why would he care that the amount he paid for 9 hours of provisions would cover the cost of my sister’s rent for 3 months?

I let the Aussie get a few steps ahead of me but keep her in my sights assuming that she is going to the bustling harbor, and I need to be guided out of this mess of back alleys. I imagine the girl laboring at a small table in a cramped room separating portions of rice into smaller muslin bags, tying them off with a piece of green yarn from an unraveled sweater. She should be in school, but for the poorest families of India, even the smallest pittance of an income is indispensable. Dowries are costly and crippling. A man’s monetary burden of securing a suitable husband for his daughter begins at her birth. It torments the exhausted father like a vulture pecking and tearing at an injured, not-yet-dead cub.

As I approach the end of a building row, the alley widens and the chaotic clamor of car and moped horns welcomes me back to the cafes and shops of Colaba, where displays of postcards, textiles, and cases full of dull metal Bohemian jewelry lure souvenir hunters. The banging dishes and blaring Hindi music replace the quieter back alleys behind me.

The harbor’s paved open area in front of the Gateway is crowded with locals on lunch breaks, Asian and European tourists. Almond eyed ladies in a dazzling smattering of saris chatter as they pass by me, staring, smiling and I am treated to the endearing Indian head waggle that says hello, goodbye, I don’t know, and yes and no. A skinny teenage boy in a tea-stained white shirt rushes by, nearly toppling his tray of 5 cups of hot chai. He stops and rebalances it, checks for spills and continues with more caution toward the group of police officers standing close to the monument.

I turn from the Gateway. The colossal Taj Mahal Palace Hotel is before me. A grand ruby hued dome adorns the top of the magnificent edifice, an homage to the building’s inspiration. By day, she is beautiful. At night, her lighting is radiant. Glittering windows and a curved, fanciful façade separate the marble floors and crystal chandeliers from the filth of the city. Shiny onyx Bentleys and chrome clad Rolls Royce autos line the front, bringing international diplomats and top-level executives for high tea over which business deals amounting in the billions will be discussed. It is the most historic and opulent hotel in this part of Mumbai, where Bollywood celebrities choose to see and be seen, just because they can. Graceful bellmen emanate royalty from their white turbans, the front twist adorned with a tall peacock feather secured behind a large jewel. They are impeccably handsome in their magenta dinner coats with gold stripes at the cuffs and stand ready to greet guests and to open the palatial glass doors where beyond, everything sparkles.

Through the din of the bustling crowd, I hear her familiar shouts.

“Sir! Madame! Madame!” The kohl-eyed enterpriser in the canary yellow salwar kameez has already returned. She has selected a mature couple wearing straw hats and matching khaki pants to repeat her shrewd business acumen and bolster her cottage industry.

“No, no. I cannot take your money…” She follows her script and resumes hoodwinking her hunger away. The little shop with the bright, peeling, robin-egg blue paint is just a two-minute walk from here.

Ghosts of Rwanda

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A palatial white stucco wall bore the hotel’s name at the entrance from the city road. Brilliant large cobalt blue letters declared a welcome to the De Mille Colline in colors that one would expect to see at a resort in the Greek isles rather than this place—Kigali, Rwanda. The wall divided the entry drive and parking lot awkwardly. At first, I thought it was an inefficient design that inhibited the ability to turn around in the parking lot without going all the way through the property. Then I realized that it was a security effort that modified how vehicles approached the hotel after the 1994 genocide. This was “Hotel Rwanda”, where hundreds of terrified Tutsis huddled for protection under Paul Rusesabagina, the general manager who had warm relations with the United Nations delegates stationed in Kigali.

Rwandans move with a poised, unhurried elegance. The bellman broke into a slow brilliant smile as he walked in graceful strides to greet me. I wondered how he managed to perform this way every single day in mid Africa in his heavy, wine-colored polyester dinner coat and pants. If he was too warm or uncomfortable, he hid it well. I felt unkempt and odorous and fully in the grip of jet lag after the previous day of flying from the east coast to Lisbon and on to Africa.

As I entered the lobby, the marble floor shone and reflected sparkling prisms of light. Majestic columns were wrapped in complimenting colors. An elegant and welcoming reception area allowed warm cross breezes that carried the scent of fragrant potted flowers. The whole back wall of the room was plate glass that yielded a gorgeous view of the hotel grounds which were enclosed by another glowing white wall, covered with vibrant explosions of fuchsia pink bougainvillea.

The swimming pool shone like a giant square blue topaz set in the middle of a yard of meticulously manicured emerald grass. The beauty and tranquility were disarming. There was a palpable, stark contrast between this scene and the horrors it hosted nearly eighteen years prior. During the one hundred- day genocide in 1994, this pool provided water for drinking, cooking, and bathing for the people who found refuge at the De Mille Colline. It gave and sustained life until it was too choked, too soiled from lack of maintenance and decay began. Once the water level was low and the remaining became unsafe to use, the pool became a cistern for waste when the plumbing was shut off by the predators who were always waiting outside the walls.

I wondered, how many hours of cleaning and rinsing, disinfecting did it take to breathe new life into these beautiful grounds? The scope of the atrocities it witnessed was unfathomable. Could every molecule of water that was present at that time—even after nearly two decades– truly be gone? The Indian poet Rumi wrote that every raindrop becomes part of the sea–the raindrop still exists in its individuality but at the same time is indiscernible from the wave that it rolled into. Was it forensically possible for every trace of those horrible days to be erased as far down as the cellular level? I wasn’t concerned with cleanliness or sanitary conditions. I wanted to respect the ghosts that I felt there. I felt their eyes on me, pleas to see and feel them, to acknowledge what happened to them and to not let them be forgotten.

I checked in with the front desk, but the room was not yet available, so I left my luggage at the concierge desk and reunited with Muzay, the driver who had offered to take me to visit some of the nearby memorials. Already overwhelmed with the weight of grief, I wondered why I felt compelled to experience such places.

The day was warm but not stifling. Stunning views revealed themselves as we drove to the edge of town and entered the openness of Rwanda, the land of a thousand hills, rolling and lush, blanketed in various hues of emerald. Coffee and tea plantations grew into one another. I was overlooking the source of the product that brought my client, a prominent US business man to Rwanda to meet with President Kagame for talks on exports.

We arrived at the first memorial, a small church with a tall chain link fence surrounding it. Muzay stopped the car and parked. I felt awkward, leaving him to sit and wait for me but I could sense that he did not plan to accompany me inside. In the eighteen years since the world witnessed the mind-numbing horrors, he had hosted many Western gawkers. I wondered what he thought of me. What is the psychology that plays into the ability to chauffer guests to the very scenes of the mass murder of your own villagers and family members? Which idea is the strongest or in what order do they occur for someone who has endured so much? Acceptance? Forgiveness? Peace? Strength? Would I ever be as good and strong as these people?

A small, bored looking man at the door of the church stood to greet me. He was sizing me up, evaluating who I was and what business I had there. Of course, had every right to do so, and every second was more humbling as I told myself, “Let him feel his authority. They have to be so tired and it must feel so insulting that their tragedy is often treated as a spectator sport.” I knew that though President Kagame is credited with stopping that rampant streak of violence all those years ago and went on to promote the “reunification of all Rwandans”, the survivors are still forced to share their country with those who killed their families. Differentiation of Hutu and Tutsi was banned after the genocide—all citizens are collectively Rwandans. And all Rwandans know that on any given day, they may be looking into the eyes of an individual that they had once seen wielding a machete.

I smiled at him and patted my right hand to my heart, a gentle greeting that is recognized in many Asian and African cultures as a sign of respect. His face softened and he began to recite his soliloquy, starting by gesturing to a bent-up mess of heavy iron bars, a tangle of metal that was what was left of the gate that secured the entrance to the church. It had been blasted with grenades to gain access to the terrified prey. As the violence heightened and the danger spread from all villages, government radio told the people to go to churches, that they would be safe in the churches with their families, neighbors, and local leaders. The reality was that they became fish in a barrel.

Inside, the pews were simple benches, made of wood like that of a picnic table that has been out in the weather for many years. They were short and pieced together at thirty-degree angles to follow the hexagon shape of the room. Piled upon them were heaps of clothes and shoes that had burned edges, rips, some shredded, some slashed. All were covered in eighteen years of dust at this preserved scene. Thousands of items littered the church. Dresses, shirts, skirts, wraps, pants, headscarves, shoes.

At the front of the sanctuary stood a podium bearing small keepsakes that were protected under a sheet of plexiglass. My attention was drawn to something resting against the dark scarlet lining, a piece that was the color of a robin’s egg, a bright sky-blue. It was a singular splash of pretty in the grim scene, like a lone twinkle in an otherwise starless night sky. I stepped closer to the podium in the dimly lighted ruins.

The lovely spot of blue was a child’s coin purse that was no larger than a toddler’s fist. It was shaped like a triangle that had the top point shaved off and replaced with silver trim and a clasp. The once glossy vinyl coat had dulled but a ruffle embellishment of the same material had held its shape. It had a few scruffs and scratches, and pea sized silver bead adorned the side of the purse in the center of the ruffle, the finishing touch like a kiss that blessed it.

Breath left me. Grief-laden breath heaved out of my chest and rushed toward the little blue coin purse with a force as though it believed it could reach the little girl who clutched it as the exploding grenades tore through the church gate. As if it could swoosh backwards through the years, blow its force into the church, lift and carry her and all those terrified people into the clouds and away from the bombs, guns, and machetes.

My chest hurt. My throat choked. I felt the sky collapse and the walls were squeezing in on me. Everything in the world felt fractured. Everything crumbled and dropped apart in pieces and particles. Everything except the baked mud and blood that attached these pieces of clothing to one another, piles upon piles on the pews, as inseparable as the souls of those who wore them.

I thought of the news footage I had seen at the time of these events of the people who were filmed by journalists, begging the world for intercession, begging the US to save them. Disbelief and fury conjoined. What is the power—or the weakness– that it leads societies to do this? To allow this? To ignore this?

I walked out of the church and toward Muzay and the car. A banner was stretched between two high posts above the gates just outside the church. Every April the government hangs thousands of them throughout Rwandan towns for 100 days to commemorate the genocide. Against a purple background, weathered white script read, “Never Again”. It flapped in the breeze noisily as air passed through the many rips and holes.

 

Writing and Meditation Workshop at Kripalu

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Last weekend I returned to the lovely property of Kripalu in the Berkshires of Massachusetts for a couple of days of writing and meditation. It renewed the passion necessary to create a regular writing practice and I realized how unproductive I have been lately.

During the course of several classes, we were shown how to give ourselves permission again to identify ourselves as “writers”, but more importantly, commit to actually writing. If  you have an interest in writing but have never been to a workshop with others struggling with the same blocks, time constraints and excuses that we all make to not regularly enjoy this cathartic experience, I encourage  you to do so. What I took away from the weekend was a refreshing perspective of how easily writing comes to those meant to do it. A few minutes of guided meditation that leads your brain in one direction followed by a writing prompt that can either continue on that which came to you in stillness or surprise you by providing a spontaneous change in trajectory was an eye-opening exercise! Dani Shapiro was the author leading the workshop and she had a brilliant way of making you feel as though you were in the passenger seat riding along a country road, allowed to close your eyes and go wherever the driver chose– but then suddenly your eyes are opened, the vehicle makes a sharp turn and now YOU are the one in control of the steering and speed.

Dani led a meditation of about 10 minutes and then we were given the prompt, “It could have happened.” For 20 minutes we wrote and then broke into small groups to share what had come to us. There was no time for editing, no time for revision or polishing.  Writing in longhand, pen to paper, thinking and composing much more slowly than I write by typing, was yet another new lesson in how a new stimulus can tweak the brain into expressing its thoughts in a different style. The following is my result of that prompt.

It could have happened. I could have been left to swelter in the July Jeddah heat, the driver refusing to re-enter the cab as long as I remained inside. It could have been Saudi police who came upon us and pulled up behind the vehicle, who would have seen me, a 27 year -old white skinned, blonde American stewardess who defied social laws and dared to venture off the compound, out of the city, without the required male relative as an escort.

The Egyptian driver, only in the Kingdom for a minimally better opportunity to provide for his family, would have surely been arrested, beaten, and…? Simply for having accepted me as a passenger.

Had the police come upon us, this man’s family could have never heard from him again, the first inkling of something being amiss would be the money wire that failed to appear this week at the Bank of Cairo. Days, weeks, months this man would languish in jail; maybe not. Maybe he would have soon been deported back to Cairo with is visa revoked and his passport bearing an enormous “Exile” stamp, forever ending his contract of employment in the Kingdom, no longer to support his aging parents, put his children through school, start a business upon his return to Cairo.

The police would have arrested me as well. But…I had value. Even as a woman I would have been a valuable hostage, for as an American, my absence would not have gone unnoticed. I could be traded for ransom, negotiated as a political pawn. I could have been paraded on the news in clean, beautifully stitched abayas, veils with intricate lace borders. But off-camera? Off-camera, lewd eyes in front of distorted perspectives of religion, decency, and entitlements would make me part of a much more ominous narrative.

As I sat in the back seat of the taxi far on the outskirts of town, still far from the airport, I looked out the back window and watched the man walk away. It turned out that he actually didn’t speak English; he didn’t have the foggiest idea of how to get me to the compound to which he had agreed to provide me transport.

When it became apparent to him that I couldn’t give him pointed direction, he realized his risk of being with me and knew he had to immediately separate himself from my company.

I saw ancient abandoned minaret towers, desert grass, sand dunes, and camels. I had heard of the Filipino nurses and teachers who were lured to Saudi for work in privileged homes—and who were used up by the salacious Saudi men, their bodies dumped at the bases of these prayer towers. Did the offenders choose those locations with the intent to follow their crimes by climbing the stairs inside to pray for absolution?

Saudi police made routine sweeps around these structures to collect the remains.

Our twenty minutes was up. For over a decade I have been trying to think of a way to start writing about the year I spent as an expat in Saudi Arabia. All it took was a prompt from a single dramatic sentence of four words.

 

 

For Grandpa on Pearl Harbor Day…reposted for Memorial Day

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December 7, 2011

Update: Grandpa passed July 13. 2012.

 

Grandpa is a Railsplitter, a division in the Army originating with Abraham Lincoln that also boasts Malcom Forbes and Henry Kissinger. He is 85 and still lives in Nixa. Recently we’ve seen the importance of recording his stories that he loves to tell even though we’ve heard the same ones repeatedly. He grew up in the hills of Hurley, Missouri and his thick Ozarks accent is just too musical to not try to translate. It’s a rough read but once you get the sound it’s the only way to hear these stories. Age and dementia make him jump from thought to thought with missing segues so as you read, you’re not missing anything –the conversation really is this fragmented. I wanted to transcribe as authentically as possible and maybe one day I’ll polish it up but for Pearl Harbor Day here are some small bits of his experiences in his own words.

Oh, them storms and snow and weather and so on was somethin’ else to bug with. Uh, we had more rain in England than it did in Germany. I don’t recall too much rainin’ in Germany, not like we had in England. Oh, we had snow in Germany and France. That winter snow, we had more of that stuff to put up with than rain. Had clothes to put on, course them, you’d hole up in that snow quicker than anything. Course then you’d cover up in that white stuff, that snow, an’ o’course that covered up any o’ that color. I’s more int’rsted in food than anything. We’d get us in a house if they was any houses available. An’ if we was still out in the fields out there, they’d be, well, they’d occupied that country, the Germans had, and they’d made dug outs, big as that room there, and I carried in pine needles in the floor. Course, you din’t dare start a fire with them pine needles in the floor. Hoooo!

No, them, them dug outs, they uh, they was one of them places to git into. Course somebody had to stand guard at the entrance. That time I was checking that prisoner in, I knew where the dug out was, and got there about from here to that tree, and I stopped him and I hollered out, “Guard at the dug out! Mitchell with a pris’ner approaching! Allowed to come in!  And it’s, Proceed! Come on!”  So, we went on. The Platoon Sgt there delegated somebody to take him on back to Battalion headquarters. Supposed to give him some information on locations. I don’t know. I wadn’t in on that part. They had interrogators to uh, to uh, get it from em, but they might talk back down the line when somebody give ‘em some food or somethin’.

This was a…this guy wandered into our lines. I couldn’t figger out why. Well, yeah I could too. He wound up bein’ some kind of a officer. I don’t know whether he was platoon leader or that size but anyway he was an officer in a German army and he was seekin’ information and locations, and walked into our line. Hooo! Shouldn’t a’oughrta done dat! But anyway, he did. I don’ know if he give ‘em any valuable information or not. S’posed to have been. S’posed to have later on, I understood, he s’posed to.

We had dug outs, we had houses we stayed in. Lot of ‘em was 2 and 3 story houses. If you wanted to, say you stayed below the top floor, you stayed in the 2nd, artillery comin’ in. They, they throwed shells in on us.

Yeah, I killed that rooster that time. We had chicken n’ dumplins.”

I needed clarification to set this scene.

         “Grandpa,where’d you find that rooster?”

“In that chicken coop behind the house we was in. Him and about a half dozen old hens was in that chicken coop. I went out and he squawked like…tore his head off and throwed him out that snow bank and let him flop and bleed and die. I went up there and told that other feller that I…was ready for you to work on ‘im. He said okay. He fixed him, they put him in a big pot, cooked him up, got some o’ them GI biscuits, made dumplins. Hoooo. (smacked lips)

No, a, a warm place to stay was uh, and food, was the two things we looked for. We had a…most of us had a K ration or at least one. They was 3 of ‘em. Breakfast, dinner and supper. K rations. They come in a box about that long, about that deep, about that wide. Scrambled eggs and…I forget what else…. With some o’ them…they was dried biscuits. It was a bread thing, kind a like crackers. Part o’ the time they’d be a powdered envelope ‘bout so big of some kinda drink. Sometimes it was Nescafe coffee.

I carried a little field pack on my back. It wadn’, it wadn’t, nothin’, it just stuck up a little bit if I decided I wanted to stay undercover… it was a field pack. Stuck up ‘bout a little bit higher than my normal body. Anyway, I usually tried to have some kind of one o’ them boxes of food in there. Yeah.

BAR—Browning Automatic Rifle, it’s called. It’s shaped like a rifle but it had bipods out on the end of the barrel, heavier than a rifle and it had a magazine of 18 or 20 shells in each magazine. And I think they was 8 o’ them I could carry in that, in that uh thing at my waist.

At this point in the recording, Grandpa was distracted by some video on TV of extreme weather and a bridge being washed out by floodwaters. It reminded him of the portable floating footbridges that were often built ahead of his platoon to enable them to cross rivers with little interruption to their progress.

 

“There, looky there, there’s one of them bridges. We had some of them. Some that tried to keep them intact …so we’d cross ‘em.”

And back to his train of thought…

No, I tried to carry at least one of them meals in my field pack for when I might want something to eat.

Floods in the basements… I slept in a potato bin in my sleepin’ bag one night. Yeah. Me an’…me an’ taters slept there together. Hooooo. Anyway, it was, it was a warm and safe place and that was the 2 things, 2 things.

Them trucks and tanks would slide off on them sides of the places, get stucks, the, the, uh, wrecker sized stuff would have to come pull ‘em out, get ‘em goin’. The noise made it, they made a noise and gave the Germans an idea of where they’s located and they’d throw artillery shells in around ‘em.

No, they had what they called a tank retriever. It was a, it was a trailer and it had a wench set up so they could pull one outta the ditch with a wench. And they had hooks on ‘em—cleavis’s, I guess they’d call ‘em—of some kind that they could tie onto ‘em with a cable. Yeah. Anyhow, back on the road and get ‘em goin’.

No, them tanks. They throw that 75mm shell and machine guns was hooked up inside ‘em and they was 2 and 3 inches of armor, of metal. Yeah.

Another pause…Grandpa lost in thought (or tired). It gave me the chance to prod him back to another story that he tells a lot but I didn’t have the bits and pieces that led into it and set it up.

 

“How did you find that house you stayed in?” I knew he had stayed with families in Belgium but never was clear on how they came to be houseguests in the war torn countryside.

“We uh, well they had advanced party in lot of them things. And the advanced party would go in and, I don’t know, they had some kind of way to negotiate with or talk to the people that give our troops certain rooms.  I don’t know. I wasn’t in on anything like that. I don’t know what exactly the operation but anyway that… them towns just like down here. We’ll just say downtown Nixa. That old uh, hardware building you know, it’s got a lot o’upstairs to it. It’d, it’d, course, that was the first floor. That was the dangerous floor to be in. Now, that’s an example of findin’ them places. Lot of them homes, like this one, be 2 stories, that way we could get upstairs in this thing but it’s still dangerous for the artillery shells to hit the roof and the pieces come through. But it they’s a basement in this thing that’s the place to git. Whooo, yeah.

Oh, I walked out one morning, Daphne, they was snow on the ground, it was one o’ them blue cold days. Walked out the basement of that house, they was a ‘lectric line pole like this one out here on the corner right there. Walked out up them steps, sun was shinin’, we was blinkin’ and a’blarin’ with all the snow on the ground. Saw a shadda, we could see shaddahs, looked up, and the civilians had caught a infil—a German soldier had infiltrated in sometime durin’ the night and they’d caught him and hung him to that pole! There he’s hangin’ there! Blue cold. Somebody said, “Well, should we cut him down?”

“No, let the sonofabitch hang there, Goddammit, he didn’t have any business over here.”

“Well, that was the kind the attitude we had you know.

Anyway, one day we was sittin’ out there out in front of this cow shed….

To be continued…

Daryl Mitchell       September 25, 1925- July 13, 2012

The Courage of Immigrants

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Today while having my nails done by one of the many Korean women working at my neighborhood salon, I realized that in the year that I have been patronizing the place, I’ve rarely engaged any of them in much conversation. I have assumed that it would be challenging due to a language barrier but the more I visit them, the more it becomes apparent that most of them are more fluent in English than I had realized. I had based my assumption on the fact that they converse with one another in their first language but until this day it had slipped my notice how easily they transitioned to English to speak to their customers.

These ladies have been a source of comfort from the first time I went in when I was a fresh arrival to Pennsylvania from Missouri in the harsh weather of last year’s February. I tend to fail to call for an appointment, opting instead to walk in. More often than not, I am led to the chair of a very sweet natured woman named Kelly. All of the ladies practice almost the same techniques and sequences of artfully making my hands presentable for serving passengers from silver trays.  One at a time the hands are prepared and nails built and polished and then as they dry under the light, my lady comes around the table to stand behind me and treats me to an abbreviated chair massage. I could fall asleep right now just thinking of the strength in their petite little hands as they squeeze the tension from my shoulders and upper arms.

I have just returned from a short visit home to Missouri. It took only one day of travel, maybe five hours total flight time making it a relatively simple trip and yet I bawled as though I had moved to the other side of the world. My Korean nail ladies actually did leave their families in another hemisphere and across the border from an insane dictator who continues to separate loved ones, subjects millions to famine and threatens missile launches. What they must be feeling when they see these issues on the news! In my homesickness I watch for weather systems that pass through the Ozarks; these ladies are watching for war for it frequently appears imminent. I study the multiple colors pixelating on a looping radar image for a tornado that doesn’t spawn. They go to bed hoping to not wake up to word of a nuclear weapon having found its way to Seoul.

This brought to mind all the courageous people that I have encountered in my work who have left me awestruck. As a flight attendant for a prestigious fleet of private jets, I am frequently in close quarters with the world’s economic movers and shakers, professional athletes, and celebrities—even former presidents. These people are constantly bombarded with public accolades to which the rest of us are simply voyeurs in a tabloid culture. However, once a figure such as this comes aboard my plane and we get past our introductions and the safety briefing, a good deal of the formality weakens. A short way into an especially long flight, after it has become apparent that we will be sharing a toilet for the next twelve hours, we usually ease into a tepid familiarity.

It is then that I see that the celebrity (actor, athlete, and business leader) is often desensitized to the compliments and wonder that their adoring fans feel toward them. Some collapse in the relief that comes from knowing that they can shed the Hollywood, Wall Street, or Washington facade once they hear that boarding door close. Others see their travel time as a gift whose greatest value lies in the opportunity to peruse iPads, laptops, and reams of paperwork that hold their next projects. It is certain that many grow numb at the sight of their faces on the magazine covers week after week. Of course, there are a number of them who have gone down the expected path of having lost all touch with reality and are the very definition of the demanding diva. There truly is a select few who couldn’t squeeze a tear of humility if their lives depended on it. But none of these individuals are in the collection of encounters that I find most memorable. What I cannot erase from my mind though are the countless individuals that will never be famous yet the stories of their lives are burned into my thoughts.

Nockie

I met Nockie when he picked me up in his Anchorage based taxicab.  He was from Warsaw, Poland and moved to Alaska twenty years ago but his wife and family remain in their homeland and are not interested in immigrating. He tries to go home once or twice a year and sees the whole thing in very simple terms.

He said, “It works. I don’t want to live there again and she doesn’t want to come here.” But they consider themselves still very married to one another.

Jean

In LA I seem to meet a lot of Russian or Ukrainian cab drivers. In New York, I would say that the majority that I have met have been from India and Pakistan. I had a wonderful conversation in Dallas between Love Field and DFW with a gentleman who had a gorgeous silver Lincoln town car, although it smelled too strongly of his cologne. He had such an aura of pristine professionalism about him that had I been charged with arranging transport for members of a royal family, I would have been comfortable calling upon him. His name was Jean and he was from Mozambique but had grown up in Ethiopia where his father was named an ambassador.

John

I often recall the town car driver that picked me up at the Philadelphia terminal and took me to the tiny private airport at Morristown, NJ. He struck up a conversation and I eventually asked him where he was from. He looked at me with a broad smile through the rear view mirror and said, “I want you to guess!”

Priding myself on having a bit of a knack to pin a person’s culture down, I took a few seconds to consider his build, which was slight but healthy. His skin tone was dark but had more olive undertones than brown so I ruled out India or Pakistan. His features seemed a bit stronger than the Turkish I had met and he was a little darker than Greek. His eyes were black and almond shaped, so they did not seem to place him of Southeast Asian heritage. His hairline was recessed, but not receding and his hair was coarse and slightly wavy but cut in flattering layers that most American men would have used product on to tame the frizzies and give it that “wet” look. He had a slightly prominent nose and chiseled jaw line. I narrowed the possibilities down to East Africa and guessed, “Ethiopia?”

John’s eyes grew big and he looked up at me again and said, “You are good! I am a black Jew from Ethiopia!”

Well, that just opened the floodgates of interest. At home on my bedside table was  Graham Hancock’s book on Biblical archaeology, “The Sign and the Seal”, in which he examines the popular theory that the Ark of the Covenant is in a church in Ethiopia and under sacred guard by a sect of African Jews called the Fallashas. John said that he is actually of another ethnic sect but he was familiar with the book and that, “Oh, yes! The Ark is in fact there. It is in the Holy of Holies and only the highest priest is allowed into its presence.”

We chatted throughout the entire drive and I will always regret not having the presence of mind to ask for his card so that we could keep in touch. This was the kind of chance meeting I would have loved to continue one evening over a traditional dinner of his childhood cuisine. John from Ethiopia.

Tahir

During a stay in the Washington, DC area, chauffer named Tahir transferred me to a different hotel when the one I had been staying in was overbooked for the night. He was very well dressed in what appeared to me a tailored suit of expensive fabric and his car matched that style. The rosary hanging from the rear view mirror and the Arabic emblem attached to it told me that he was Muslim. I surmised from his looks that he was either Indian or Pakistani. Political strife between the neighboring nations can lead to offense when they are confused with one another but with the history of the two having been one country and the marriages that occurred during that time, it is often difficult to distinguish just by outward appearances.

Tahir and I started talking and he said he was from India.

“Oh, my favorite place in the world!” And we were off.

He asked if I had been there so I gave him a brief about the three months in 1996 during which I worked Haj flights for Air India out of New Delhi. I told him that I had been so smitten with the experience that it led to a few fortunate return trips as well as having studied the history and culture in depth since returning. I caught him stealing more glances at me in the mirror, sizing me up, figuring me out, this lily white American woman who claims to have such affection for his people and faith. I wanted him to drive away from me knowing that not all Westerners think all Muslims are sleeping terrorists.

He must have decided that both of us viewed the other as harmless for he felt comfortable enough to ask if it would be okay if he stopped and picked up his cousin who was taking over his driving route for the rest of the night. A request like that may have shot up a red flag to someone else who didn’t share the openness toward Indians that I do but I thought nothing of it. He was known by the concierge of the high end hotel I had just stayed in, and being somewhat familiar with the work habits of my international drivers, this did not strike me as anything out of the norm. Limousines, town car drivers and taxi cabs are populous in Washington traffic; one strike of misbehavior by a driver and he’ll never carry anyone again from those lucrative locations.

He pulled into a townhouse community and we picked up his cousin. He looked a little surprised to see a passenger in the back seat and Tahir quickly explained that I had agreed to the diversion and Abrim turned around and we began to chat.

I said, “So, you’re from India?”

“No, I’m from Pakistan.”

Then he and Tahir exchanged facial expressions that shouted, “You idiot! I had told her we were from India?” and, “You idiot! Why didn’t you tell me that you had told her we were from India?”

Ooops. It quickly dawned on me that they were both Pakistani nationals, possibly not related at all, and that poor Tahir had purposely wanted me to think they were from India for the US obviously has a much better relationship with it than Pakistan. The time of this incident was shortly after the raid that killed Osama bin Laden which in turn gave rise to the accusations that Pakistan had been sheltering him and his cell.

I felt terribly sorry for them both and wanted to immediately put them at ease and change the trajectory of the conversation.

“Oh, okay, so Tahir is from India and you’re from Pakistan. It’s nice that you were able to come here to the US and work together.”

They looked at each other again and it appeared that there was an unspoken understanding among the three of us. It made no difference to me whether they were from India or Pakistan; I was comfortable with them either way.

We talked about their country; the food, the heat and monsoons they had endured, and the beauty of the mountainous Kashmir. The region is a source of a volatile border dispute between India and Pakistan which is unfortunate. I have not had the opportunity to travel there because of the political strife but it is the state that the Mogul emperors chose to build their summer homes. The climate of the altitude is a pleasant respite of lower humidity and cooler temperatures. Aesthetically its views rival those in the Alps of Switzerland and Austria with the dark snow tipped peaks jutting into the sky the clearest hue of azure one could ever find. Bright green valleys littered with flowers in every color imaginable yield the feeling of having stepped into an illustrated children’s book. The enormous bougainvillea bushes aflame in glorious pink and purple blossoms cascade ancient stone walls and along the rolling hills; it is no small wonder that Kashmir was the original Shangri-la.

I imagined that at some point one or both of them had endured a terse event of at least profiling and racism or something even more sinister that made them feel forced to lie about their nationalities. What a shame that they live in one of the most multinational areas of our country and they still have such a fear of what will happen if someone finds out where they are from. My heart teetered between compassion for them and the insults that they must so often face and then anger at the closed minded prejudice that compels me to be on constant ambassador duty, coming behind and cleaning up the wounds left by ignorant arrogance. I may sound naïve, and to another person their behavior would reek of suspicion, but to me they were nothing less than courteous and professional and seemed to enjoy the drive once engaged in conversation that showed a genuine interest in their well being.

I was dropped off at the entrance to my new hotel and bid Tahir and Abrim goodnight. A couple of days later I was able to call Tahir for another ride, this one to the airport to go home. There was the possibility that he would send another driver for the job but I was pleased to see him come through the door and offer to load my bags. It would only be about a half hour’s drive but it was a half hour that I had to once again engage in conversation that inspired me and hopefully reassured him. This time I asked him about one of my favorite activities in his culture: smoking hookah pipes. He looked into the mirror at me and his eyes were wide.

“You smoke shisha?”

I have never been a cigarette smoker and frankly, even the slightest hint of the smoke turns my stomach sour and initiates a headache. Shisha tobacco is delightful though. It is regular black tobacco but it is diluted with molasses and can be found in the flavor of just about any fruit and gives off a warm, sweet aroma that reminds me of the days in which my father was a pipe smoker.

I brought two pipes home from Saudi Arabia, one of which I almost never got back from my stepfather as he came to enjoy the occasional light up out on the porch in the evenings. Hookah pipes are basically water bongs not unlike those sold in head shops in the US. There is a large glass base that is filled with water and through the top of that is inserted the brass pipe that seals the mouth of the base with a rubber gasket. High up on the brass fixture sits a small round clay dish with tiny holes punctured through it and it is in this dish that the shisha is placed and mashed down. Tin foil is then spread across the shisha and small pieces of charcoal are set on the foil and lit. The hoses are attached to outlets from the brass fix near the mouth of the vase and to smoke the pipe you suck on the mouthpiece of the hose, drawing the heat from the charcoal pieces down through the tobacco, through the holes in the clay dish. The shisha is properly heated and ready to be enjoyed when you see smoke in the vase and the water is bubbling with each inhalation. I found that getting a pipe started can be quite challenging and often requires a regular smoker to draw that heat all the way from the top of the pipe down through the glass and into the hoses.

I told Tahir that most of my friends who smoke cigarettes claim that the shisha tobacco has no effect on them but to me as a non-smoker, it may as well be marijuana. One day while I was living in Saudi, a small group of our pilots and flight attendants decided to treat ourselves to an evening out and we chose to go to the Jeddah Sheraton for dinner. It was a lovely evening at a table outdoors next to the swimming pool.  We dined on fine Arab cuisine, a welcome change from the roasted chicken and biryani rice plates we regularly feasted on from a stand around the corner from our villas that we had come to refer to as “road kill”.

After dinner we indulged in the pipes. A sweet young server was our “shisha boy” and he outfitted our pipes with the tobacco and charcoal and got those all started for us with a few strong draws into his lungs. They were passed around and everyone sampled the different flavors. Two hits and I needed a couch.

Tahir laughed at me.

“No, really,” I said. “We had our own pipes at the villas by this time and had smoked them occasionally with the mash we got at the pipe store and I would feel a little relaxed but mainly just enjoyed the flavor. I don’t know what the Sheraton shisha had in it but they were not shopping at the same place I did. Nothing looked any different; colors didn’t look any brighter. I just felt stoned off my butt and sat and stared into space. Man, that was a fun time.”

The conversation probably left me a besmirched woman in Tahir’s opinion. His brow never really relaxed from the arch that marks an expression of mile surprise after that and he continued to look as though he really wasn’t sure what to think of me. It probably was rooted in his being used to seeing American women doing whatever we want to do in our culture but to imagine me participating in an activity so Arab, so much closer to his own culture—and boldly doing so—seemed to leave him a tad puzzled.

Mo

Today I rode with Mo from my Woodland Hills hotel to the Los Angeles Airport. He had the dark skin and features that I recognized from India and since I was still working on this piece I immediately engaged him in conversation for the hour’s drive.

Mo was not from India though. He was from Sri Lanka. He had been in LA for about five years now and started working at a gas station but found his niche as a chauffer for one of the regular customers he met there. I asked him how he came to the States; how did he pick up and leave everything he knew in Sri Lanka and how did he know he would like it here.

“In Sri Lanka life is not good. The war is over, the violence is over but it is very difficult to make living. In one month in Sri Lanka a man make something like, ah, two hundred dollar. It is very bad. The president, he stop the war but he take all money. He give jobs to his family, all his family have jobs and he pay them with tax but regular people, they no have food some.”

As Sri Lanka is so close in proximity to India, I have watched over the years as the Tamil Tigers wreaked havoc on the people. They tore the country apart with guerilla warfare no different from the terror in any other war torn country. It is peaceful now for the most part. The primary issues that remain a hardship are that the governor who put down the Tamil Tiger rebels is absconding with all the international aid pouring in. Mo said that goods are taxed in an abhorrent manner; the sales tax on an automobile is two to three hundred percent of the value of the vehicle itself.

“So, Mo, it is expensive to live in LA. Even with the better income here, it is still worth it to have left home?”

“Oh, yes. You see, I may make two thousand US dollar here in one month. I pay about nine hundred rent and have a roommate. That leaves me still with one thousand to send home to help. I am supposed to get green card in one month, two maybe. Then some family can come and I can visit home and come back. It is better in Sri Lanka but still much rebuilding to do and the government, they get say one million in aid and they put two hundred thousand to the people and keep the rest.”

As is clearly the case with most of the foreign aid the US is spilling out all over the world. We’re certainly not seeing any improvements in the lives of Koreans or Egyptians.

Mo said he works seven days a week and his hours vary between time still filling shifts at the gas station and driving clients. He will drive when he has a job and then if he has a few hours between transports, he goes to work at the station. I pressed him for more details about how he came to the US and put his life together.

“I worked for the royal family in Doha, Qatar. They gave me a place to live, cell phone, personal auto, paid for everything. All my salary was mine to keep. But I was on call twenty four hours a day. I had no life. I stayed for two years and then that was it. I met a man who asked if I wanted to go to US and I did so it cost me about ten thousand dollars to move here but I did. I did not have that money at the time so I paid him what I had and have worked to pay the rest off. He helped get paperwork together and get me here.”

Oh, dear.

“Mo, do you ever feel that you have been taken advantage of? Was it worth that much money to come here and pay someone to do these things to get you here? Do you feel safe?”

He thinks. “Mmmm, yes, it is worth it. It is good.”

“How did you get your job? How did you know where to go and who to talk to?”

“I found a restaurant that serves Sri Lankan food and all the workers are Sri Lankan. They help tell me how to get work.”

That made sense; in a new land, seek out your community and follow their lead. Just like our military families that are based overseas, the common nationalities network and find each other so no one feels so far away from home.

“Was it hard for you to learn your way around and how to drive here?”

“No, not really. I drove in Sri Lanka and Qatar. Here is good, you have so many lanes. You can talk on phone, drink coffee while driving. In Sri Lanka you have narrow roads, one lane going the direction and very crowded with cars, bicycles, lorries, motorcycles so you are like this concentrating all time,” and he demonstrated the white knuckle death grip on the steering wheel and straight ahead stare. I laughed and let him know that I had become quite familiar with that type of driving during my travels in India.

We arrived at LAX but were distracted by our conversation and missed my terminal so we had to go all the way around the airport property again. I was curious to know what faith Mo believes but didn’t want to ask outright so I instead asked what the population in Sri Lanka follows. He said it is mostly Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Christian. That didn’t narrow it down for me much. He had not taken the bait when I mentioned India so I doubted he was Hindu. He confirmed this when I showed him my little Ganesh statue I was traveling with.

“What religion do you like?” he asked me.

“I was raised Christian but I love studying all the major religions. While living in Saudi I tried to learn as much as I could about Islam, India interested me in Hinduism, and I’m somewhat familiar with a bit of the Jewish faith.”

“You know what I do not like about the Hindu? I cannot get the animal gods. I no pray to monkey and animals,” he said. “And the lady with the eight arms-it is crazy!”

“Yes, I understand. I like the philosophy of Hinduism, or maybe it is the Vedic teachings that I identify with. I love the stories that the deities convey but, yeah, I have a hard time really getting them as Divine. I would like to learn more about Buddhism. I went to Sarnath in India where he preached his first sermon.”

‘Buddhism is peace. Everything about it is just nice.”

I gather that Mo is more than likely Buddhist.

Inspired

John the black Ethiopian Jew in Philadelphia, Tahir and Abrim the Pakistani Muslims in Washington, and Mo the Sri Lankan Buddhist in Los Angeles. They all grew up in oppressive hardship as boys and left homes that have since erupted in horrifying episodes of war and violations of the most basic of human rights. The gaps between them and their families is greater than many of us could ever imagine. To think of leaving everything familiar, everything I have been socialized to feel as right, comfortable and complete is incomprehensible. I love my vacations that allow me to do just that but I am often just as pleased to return to my mundane routine after they end. These people that I have met will not be doing that in a matter of two or three weeks. They literally left behind the only lives they had known because the optimism of a better permanence was indisputable, no matter how great the sacrifice.

They undertook the endeavor fully aware that they may never again see many of their loved ones and may never revisit their childhood haunts. The future will be filled with a reinvention of themselves and a complete redesign of their identities. Boxed mixes of macaroni and cheese may become as monotonous to them as sitting in a field sucking the juice out of raw sugar cane once was. This is what I find the most awe inspiring about my immigrant friends: the strength to allow the familiar to become out of reach and the new to become genuinely familiar.

Finding Your Happiness

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Are we ever conscious of when we have become happy?

I’ve grown to believe that I didn’t realize or have an “Aha!” moment when I apparently stepped across a threshold into happiness.  Of course there have been spikes, a few fleeting highs that occurred upon learning that I had earned or attained something for which I’d been yearning; those are to be expected. But a pure consciousness of the moment to recognize that zenith, as Buddha at the moment of enlightenment, I now know that I did not have. The culmination of “happiness” as in living a life of contentment and pleasure where problems ebb and flow and crises are diluted by satisfaction, I believe, is something I see most clearly when I acknowledge where I’ve been and the steps and events that were interruptions along the way.

The Christmas that came shortly after my eighth birthday brought a toy that would become one of my most used and favored possessions as a child; a globe. About that same time, my mother bought an Encyclopedia Britannica set and housed it in my bedroom in a bookcase made by my great grandfather.  I would put hours of use into these two items as a child normally puts miles on a bicycle.

I remember countless afternoons sitting on the floor with my globe in front of the bookcase, setting it on a fast spin with a fingertip lightly resting on it, feeling the smoothness of the oceans and the dimples and bumps of the mountain ranges as they slid underneath my touch. When it came to a stop, I’d open my eyes to see where my finger had come to rest, turn to the encyclopedia and devour ever morsel of information about that geographical mark, pulling out volume after volume, moving on to cross references that inevitably led to reading about another fascinating place or event. Soon geography as a subject of study came as naturally to me as reading and writing.

One day I looked up my uncommon name and surprisingly found it rooted in Greek mythology. From that day on, I was determined to walk amongst the ruins of Athens and the fascination continued on into college when Classical Mythology 101 was the class that stood to offer the least weight toward a degree yet was invariably the class for which I studied the most fervently.

I continued to spin the globe and read the encyclopedia about Europe, the cultures and history, the rulers and peoples. All along, it never occurred to me that I was building a foundation that I would one day indulge as my passion. I was still playing with dolls and Barbies and although a good student, hadn’t really given much thought to what I wanted to be when I grew up. I assumed I’d marry young, become a mother, and everything else would fall into place, just like many young girls growing up in the 70’s who fell under that Cinderella complex.

Then came sixth grade and in social studies we learned of cultures that were more ancient than I had yet come across. Mesopotamia, Sumer, Ur, Arabia. Soon, reading of these places just wasn’t enough. I wanted to go there, walk in the paths of the archaeologists that were unearthing all these artifacts that were being proven to record history thousands of years back. A new enthusiasm took hold and I actually started consider the possibility of a career in antiquity.

Eighth grade brought heartache and depression that nearly led to me taking my life. While many adolescents undergo a transformation, endure an awkward stage, I fell into an extremely dark place that I honestly did not see a way out of. I was wearing a Milwaukee brace for scoliosis and it couldn’t have come at a worse time. I was just starting to come out of my thick shell of crippling shyness when suddenly, I had to spend 23 hours a day in a contraption that in no way allowed me to be a wallflower. All that comes to mind of that school year was sleeping and waking up—and counting the hours till I could bury myself again at night and pray for death. Happiness was a word that couldn’t possibly ever appear in my vocabulary again.

At 14, I didn’t want tomorrow. I wanted out.

Twenty five years later, the little girl who played with dolls and felt her entire destiny was to be one half of a married couple, a mother, identified by that married name, cottage house with the white picket fence bordered with marigolds is gone. She faded from existence and I know I never even said goodbye. Well into my thirties, I felt that she was still in the back of my mind as I nursed heartbreak after heartbreak, thinking there was something wrong with me in that I had not attained that “Mrs.”, or come to know motherhood. Now I know that it was just her ghost in the back of my mind at that point because she had quietly and gracefully exited long ago. She knew this was not the life for her. She had a perception, a wisdom that led her out of me so that I could lead myself.

I’m still awestruck that at 42, unmarried and childless, I don’t see my past as a potpourri of poor choices that left me here. If that relationship with my first love had worked out, I would have followed him as a military wife, never left the country and probably forever stayed in his shadow. The breakup that I grieved for 3 years was the pivotal point that led me to a career that has allowed me to live in such places as India and Saudi Arabia. In my early 20’s had I not left the abusive miscreant that I had allowed to completely control my feelings and actions, I never would have seen the Eiffel Tower, the pyramids and Sphinx in Egypt, or the Coliseum.

Every step taken inside the city walls of Old Jerusalem, I checked myself, aware that my foot may come to rest on one of the very same spots that Jesus, Mary, or even St. Paul stepped. Wandering through London with its contrast of modernity up against antiquity, playing the movies of the British monarchy history in my mind as I walk the grounds of Westminster Abbey or Tower Hill, it’s in a split second of heightened awareness that I know that while I have been chasing, tracking down happiness, it was my happiness that actually found me.

Entering through the red stone ornate gateway to see the Taj Mahal for the second time, I choked up with such a joy that all I could do was stand there and drown in trembles while a continuous loop of audio played in my head, “I can’t believe I’m here. I can’t believe I’m here. Thirteen years after completing a work contract in Delhi and falling in love with this story, I can’t believe I got to see this again.”

I wish I could have written this letter to myself 20 years ago to tell that young woman to broaden her view of what happiness is and how to recognize its locks and keys. I never had the dress shopping, bridesmaids, and showers. I never relished the joy of telling my husband we were expecting or cozied up to him in bed as we looked through baby name books. I grew to believe that all those things  were  pinnacles of happiness that I had never been to and never would  since I met my love much later than planned.

John Lennon is often credited with the quote, “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.” Oh, how insightful! Every time the gear touches down in a foreign country that I’ve dreamt of or read about, I know I’ve found my happiness–and I almost still can’t believe I’m here.