Category Archives: Inspiration

A Letter to my 14-Year-Old Self

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Previously published in the Pearl S. Buck Literary Journal

Shut that closet door and stop looking at Dad’s guns. They are all too large for you to handle anyway. You can’t position a rifle at yourself and reach the trigger. You will just make a mess. The pills in the bathroom medicine cabinet may not work either. You may just make yourself sick or end up comatose.

You are only fourteen years old. You have no way of knowing what you will miss out on if you do this. One day you will wake up to the unnerving realization that had this been your last day, it would have been a tragic forfeiture.

Your pain is real, and it feels unconquerable, but you can get through this. It begins with this moment and when it is gone, you can get through the next one, and the next, and the next. One by one, if you follow them—think ‘one more day’—instead of succumbing to the blinding turmoil in your mind, you will come through this dark place.

You will not be a teenager forever. Your current troubles will subside and yes, they will yield to other nuisances and setbacks, as all lives impart. But you will learn that a diverging path is more challenging and the reward for navigating these curves is the added scenery and preparedness for the next twist in the road, You cannot begin to grasp the magnificence of the visions that lie ahead of you. Just wait until you see the bigger picture!

No matter how stuck you think you are right now, the wheel of your life is in motion. Every friendship, relationship and experience has the potential to change your trajectory beyond anything you can imagine, and when that happens, you will set upon another path to encounter others whose trajectory you are destined to affect. You must stay because you never know what impact you may have on another’s life, nor they on yours.

For in a few years you will fall in love, and you will feel adored and protected…until you are not. Then you will learn how strong you are when you sever the ligatures of a toxic relationship and leave the one who demeans and insults you. His words are flames that burn you, an inferno that consumes you until you are melted down to a dangerously thin frame. The taunting pushes and shoves that were “just playing”, the arrogant gloats and declarations that you will never leave him immobilize you for days. You would not, you could not. But you can and you do. You will never question your decision, nor will you grieve the months that you tolerated his scalding, dispiriting abuses. You left with the tools to extinguish any future immolation.

You will laugh and curse as you attempt to remodel your first home, a structure that was so fixer-upperish that it was barely worth fixing up. There will be times that you question your own senses—what business do you have taking on such a project? Squirrels play in the crawl space and get into the walls. They sound like fish in a bucket, flopping about. You try hanging your own kitchen cabinet by drilling screws through the back without fastening to a single stud. It breaks from the wall and falls, collapsing your ironing board and stack of books that it was propped upon. You are crying with laughter when you call a friend and describe the scene. His mother chides him, “Go help that poor girl hang her cabinets.”

You will smile at the thought of that dumpy old house on Jeffery Lane because it was your escape from the abuser who sneered that you were incapable of doing anything on your own. Yes, it was ugly—hideous—the fences shrugged, and the roof leaked. The fireplace was an afterthought, awkward (and likely dangerously) built into a corner of the living room so that it enclosed a window! The propane tank gauge was corroded and unreadable, so you frequently ran out. You hung wallpaper poorly and your attempt at crown molding looked like it was done with a chainsaw. But it was your soft landing when you leapt from the grip of the abuser.

And when it is time to move on, the Karmic wheel rolls right up to your front door. The shabby little house that you fear you will have to pray away is the palace that answers the prayers of a down-on-her-luck single mother.

When you were a little girl, you wanted to stay home from church on Sunday night and watch the Miss America pageant. Every summer brought two weeks of Bible School, learning memory verses and countless stories from antiquity on the other side of the planet. Old Jerusalem was just an ancient, unimaginable city in a story on thin pages of a heavy book.

But years from now, you will say a prayer at the Wailing Wall and the memories of youth will swarm and flit about like butterflies. Oh, the countless hours spent in church on snowy Sunday mornings and firefly lit, muggy summer evenings! The illustrations in your old children’s Bible come to life as you survey the craggy, rocky streets of the Old City, with its churches and temples. You explore the souvenir shops and enjoy the dance of price-haggling between merchants and penny-pinching tourists. When you return to the maze of streets, you draw your fingers along the walls built of stone in shades of sand and bronze that bled into one another like watercolors. The scene is monochromatic sepia except for the brilliant splashes of colorful flowers that spring from some of the cracks or spill over the top of the wall.

Green ivy cascades from the trees and blue aster reaches out from small soil beds inserted between stones. Bougainvillea bushes abound with dazzling fuchsia blooms. The branches arch over the top of the wall and reach to join the other flowers. They are perfectly manicured and pruned to discourage overgrowth. Visitors will not be scratched by prickly barbs as they admire the tree’s beauty while retracing the route that Jesus walked while the thorns tortured him.

With every step you will be mindful as you wonder, “In whose steps am I walking?” With each placement of your feet on the stones, you will imagine how others have stepped there. Who were they? Did they live peacefully here during that time, or were they rife with conflict and heartache as so much of the history of Jerusalem holds? What did they experience here hundreds or thousands of years ago? You look at the ground and create a vision. Are you standing on the erased footprint of a thick leather sandal worn by a powerful warrior? Or in the knee prints once made in the mud by a broken, collapsed slave?

But if you keep looking at the guns, this scene will not happen.

You are only fourteen. You cannot know that your future includes living in India and Saudi Arabia. Your adventures in these two wildly different cultures will challenge you on everything that you have ever felt or thought about humanity and the universe. The train journey from New Delhi to Agra will prove a pivotal time in your life. The impossible beauty of the Taj Mahal—as the poet Tagore described, “a teardrop on the cheek of time”—will cast her spell and create in you an unquenchable thirst for everything Indian.

In Mumbai, you will see a young girl carrying an even younger baby on her hip while she extends to you her free hand, begging for a rupee. There will be sandalwood incense making a futile attempt to mask the smell of urine and curry. Varanasi’s sadhus appear other worldly as they meander the winding alleys naked and smeared with gray ash. A bearded Shiva devotee with a mischievous smile and a saffron painted forehead squats at Dashashwamedh Ghat, the steps descending from the city street to the Ganges. He keeps his gaze fixed on you as he wrings the holy water from the marigold robe he is washing. He will continue chanting, “Ram, Ram, for it is his belief that if he dies with the name of his god on his lips, Lord Ram will whisper the secret of life in his ear as the soul leaves the body.

These visions will return to you often and it will be in those moments that you are the most aware of your heart unfolding in your chest. You will wonder why you feel passionately drawn to a culture so different from your own. What is the appeal of this continent, a history, a religion, and a people so unfamiliar to you? As a lotus flower’s root reaches far beneath the water’s surface and cannot be seen, your connection to India will be visceral and its source you may never understand. The mystery will be as thrilling as it is bewildering.

But you will never experience this wonder if you open the orange and white pill bottle with the Family Pharmacy label wrapped around it.

In Saudi Arabia you will spend a year feeling as though you have been dropped onto another planet. The men wear white long robes and red and white checked patterned scarves on their heads. Within a few weeks’ time though, you will decide that they appear familiar to you, and that it is your American colleagues who look out of place in their blue jeans and T-shirts.

You will be living in Jeddah, when two young princes suffer the heartbreaking loss of their mother, who was loved by the world. You will draw the curtains closed and sit in the dark with Karen and Deborah, sobbing while watching William and Harry follow Diana’s funeral procession.

A few days later you will be enjoying a delicious cup of sweetly spiced chai in the Pakistani quarter of Jeddah. Sami, your Bangladeshi-born friend will translate what the server says as he walks away from the table, patting his hand to his heart and waggling his head side to side.

“She looks like our princess. Our kind, dead princess.” And your heart will melt.

For the first time in your life, you will be subjected to discrimination and a lack of simple liberty that drives you to tears. There will be separate seating areas for women in restaurants, you will not be allowed to drive, and will be required to wear the abaya, the long black robe. You will laugh in the old Souq when you purchase a flamboyant hot pink one and taunt the religious police with your uncovered long blonde hair. There will be stores that display signs in their front windows stating, “No Ladies Allowed,” and you will be rendered apoplectic, but with time youwill reflect on the value of the occurrence. Yes, even this vile, fracturing moment will enrich your soul, for in no other place and at no other time, would you, a twenty-six-year-old white privileged American woman, face such a severe lesson in humility.

At fourteen, you cannot foresee that on a future 4th of July, you will take pictures from a camel’s saddle as you ride around the Sphinx and the great pyramids of Giza. A frail, old man with sun-weathered skin and a turban of white gauzy layers wrapped around his head approaches you. He peddles trinkets to tourists. His kind eyes meet yours and when he places a cheap resin beetle in your hand, he declares, “Gift for you! Now give me money!” It will be a talisman that you never let go.

You will spend hours exploring the Cairo museum, touching towering ancient statues that were carved before Moses walked the land. You will weave through endless aisles of glass cases displaying jewels, intricately painted pottery and papyrus sheaths. Astounded by the volume and ages of the bountiful collection, you will linger to read and reread the caption for each piece, and you send a prayerful thanks to your parents. It was a Christmas gift that you received when you were eight years old that ignited that yearning to learn of other cultures—a globe.

You will be horrified when within weeks of your visit a bus full of German tourists is

attacked as it is parked in front of the museum. Nine people are killed. Thirteen years later, a civil uprising called the “Arab Spring” overthrows the government and thousands of artifacts are lost to Tahir Square rioters, looters, and fire. You will be gripped by your memories and feel sorrow for Egypt’s loss, and grateful for the visions left in your memory.

One evening, you will see on the news a country whose name you have not yet heard, Rwanda. The whole world will learn about this tiny, central African nation when it erupts into an unspeakably savage genocide.

Two decades later, you will hike that Land of a Thousand Hills and marvel, unblinking, at the family of Silverback Mountain Gorillas as they wrestle and chase one another. They are so close that you can hear their breaths as they chew bamboo shoots that they snapped off at the ground. The babies playfully roll around, screeching and teasing the adults. The giant male grunts and rushes past you and your companions, protesting your proximity to his ladies and offspring.

You will spend a few days in an ivy-embraced white stucco cottage that was home to an idyllic American woman and read her personal journal. As you leaf through the red leather-bound book with her elegant penmanship, you will marvel at the whimsical courage that married her to a big game hunter and followed him to Africa. She became so enchanted with Rwanda that even when the marriage failed, she adopted it as her home and lived on their plantation for the rest of her life.

She was a nurturer and became friends with an anthropologist who would one day be famous. When the doctor’s emphysema or local tribal conflicts flared, she descended from her mountain camp in the higher altitudes. She wrote “Gorillas in the Mist” while resting in a bedroom in the cottage, next to the room you will sleep in.

Though in her 80’s when the genocide stormed through forcing a brief evacuation, the lady of the manor returned to her lovely acres of dahlias and daisies, and with the help of the UN, rebuilt the property into an orphanage. She became a mother to hundreds of parentless children, decades after her child-bearing years ended. You will love this story but that you get to walk in her footsteps amongst the flowers and sit at her table will make it so much more meaningful. A picture you take of the African plantation at sunset will be one that, of all your travels, you hold the most dear.

You will struggle in the city of Kigali as you go through the photos and dioramas of the museum that documents the genocide. You will feel the souls of the churchgoers who were killed in their perceived safe place as you walk past the weathered pews, left strewn with the dead’s clothes and possessions as a monument so that they are never forgotten. You will fall in love with the kindness and elegance of the Rwandan survivors. The serenity and grace that you find there will leave you astonished at the human capacity for resilience and forgiveness.

There is a spouse in your future who needs you to survive. When his family breaks apart and he is shaken to the core by the silent absence of his children and pet, you will be the one with whom he builds a future. You will sunburn on Caribbean beaches and delight in Broadway shows. Your disdain for cold weather will acquiesce to the majesty of snowy Swiss Alps when he takes you there at Christmastime. He will indulge your inner Hippie when you embrace yoga, meditation, and pink hair.

At 14 you cannot embrace this concept. You cannot see past tomorrow, but that is not because of stubbornness or “being a teenager”—it is perspective. It is understandable that the thoughts and fears that you cannot articulate are all-consuming and that you feel disconnected from the adults you try to confide in. You sense that they are growing tired of you, that they think you are being vain and unreasonable.

You feel that you have control over nothing in your life—you are an animal in a snare and there is only one way to stop this crushing feeling.

Exasperation flattens you when they say, “This is temporary,” and that, “You’ll get over it”. Your despair is compounded when your feelings are trivialized and dismissed. You know that they do not mean to sound this way, but clearly, they cannot grasp the gravity of your emotional state—and you desperately need them to.

What you need to know is this: They are not apathetic or unconcerned with your despondency —they have forgotten how it feels to be powerless. No one gets through adolescence without some tears. Almost everyone who has muddled through it to reach the liberating milestone of adulthood discarded the armor long ago that deflected their own daggers of teenage angst. They must be reminded that you are unable to see your situation the way they do. Your short fourteen years of life have not provided enough experiences to look back on to show you that it truly does get better, that there really is a good place waiting on the other side of this challenge. All you know is where you are now, how you feel now.

Here is what else you need to know: There absolutely will be evenings of gut-wrenching laughter with wonderful friends that you have yet to meet. You will read books that change your heart and beliefs. You will travel around the planet more times than you can count. You will sip a Moscow Mule across the bar from a former British Prime Minister in a swanky European piano lounge. You will pour coffee on a private jet for a former President—he takes it black and in his paper cup, not the china. You will discover Eton Mess in London, have pizza in Perugia, and roam Rome. Maybe you’ll even write a story or two. But you will never see any of this if you leave now.

Seek out what fascinates you and pursue it in your spare time. Notice the adults with whom you feel comfortable—teachers, friends’ parents, or neighbors. You may be drawn to them because of a common interest or talent. Take advantage of their age and experience to lead you to opportunities. Follow an issue as it evolves from one project into another that may seem unrelated—and then marvel at the journey. Learn as much as you can about other cultures and engage in thoughtful conversations that stretch your soul and vision. Devour books and see movies that do more than entertain, but also inspire and teach. These are the actions that nurture curiosity and dialogue, and dialogue nurtures compassion, which nurtures connection—a lack of which is precisely what brings you to this moment.

Be aware that at any time, there are many others like you who are confused, defeated, lost, and standing on the same ledge that you are. When you see them, I hope that you are confidently the one to help. It will be your time to talk them down, assuring them that you all have grand lives to look ahead to.

Thirty years from now you will be haunted by an epidemic of teen suicides. When that day comes, I hope that you remember the words that pulled you through your own dark times. You will know that those kids need a guide to that tells them that they have adventures to look forward to. They just must be convinced that there is a future and it can be more than mere existence. Life can be full of purpose and awe, as yours has been and you never saw it coming. One day you were on an ill-defined path just out of a rotten relationship and living in a slightly less rotten house, the next you were on your first flight to Paris. That was twenty-six years ago, and you are not finished yet—but if you do what you are thinking of doing right now, none of this will ever happen.

It is sobering to think of how many others have not walked away from the closet during the past thirty years, but instead reached inside, picked up the weapon, strung the rope, or swallowed the pills. Sadly, it is reasonable to believe that over the next thirty years there will be other fourteen-year-olds, 17, or even 10-year-olds somewhere looking in a closet. If you don’t walk away from your closet, they may not walk away from theirs.

 

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.