I’ve been working this essay about Ramadan dresses (dara’as, caftans) and while the process is fun (interviewing! I’m interviewing people who can teach me more!) and I’m learning about the region’s holy month traditions and drafting real time, I really needed a chunk of writing to go somewhere this week. The Ramadan dress essay is like a sheep going from one tuft of grass to the next. I really don’t know where it starts or ends right now.
I returned to the first essay I wrote for the creative nonfiction class I’m taking, reread comments and questions before parking myself in front of the draft to revise. I was a revision rock star. It helps that I’ve been thinking about this essay since first drafting it. It helps that I decided to do as I say: I sat in a chair and made myself revise. Discipline has its appeal.
What follows will get another go at some point. For now, mostly finishing a piece feels so good.
Fahaheel Sea Walk
One Saturday I take the kids for a walk in Fahaheel. This Saturday feels like one of the last cool days before the heat arrives to keep us moving from one air-conditioned place to the next, from apartment to car to shopping mall. During the summer I miss the Gulf. I miss its changing colors, grays and blues mostly but sometimes turquoise or murky green. I miss standing on the rocks off the path, watching waves form and crash. So this Saturday I want the Gulf. We park at the Sea Club and start walking south on the palm lined cobbled path. Claire and Grant jumped from the low wall to the sand and run alongside. When I first found this path, I had only Claire. And the next year I had Grant too, wrapped snug against my belly. The three of us made a twenty or thirty minute walk stretch the morning. On this Saturday my kids race ahead, circle back. Grant holds out his hands to show me treasure: popsicle sticks, a bottle cap, a cracked Happy Meal toy. He has an eye for screws, nuts, nails too, anything his dad might use on a project.
“Can we play here?” Claire asks. We’re halfway to AlKout, halfway to the coffee and hot chocolate we’ll have at a café there. Claire jumps up and down when I say sure, go, go play. She yells for Grant to follow. I sit cross-legged on the low wall. I can see Claire and Grant bending over something on the sand, then race toward the edge of the beach where a shisha bar overlooks the Gulf. They run back and forth like that, pausing to dig holes with pink Baskin Robbins spoons or examine shells. I remember pausing here when Claire was a toddler, squatting to speak with her. We came that morning with a group of moms and strollers and kids but at the first zig in the path, Claire sat down. The others waited a polite distance ahead. When we walked together, we were always pausing for someone to catch up but that morning Claire wouldn’t go. I waved at Jamie. “Go on ahead,” I called, “We’ll catch up.” She called back, “You sure?”
I wasn’t sure about much that year. I don’t remember how long I squatted there, Grant wrapped against my belly and Claire sitting, resolved. I am sure I sighed. That year was knit in sighs of tiredness, frustration, sorrow, surrender. I remember speaking gently. “Come on, we’re almost there. We’ll get a hot cocoa,” I might have said. And when Claire’s little legs still wouldn’t take another step, I’d promise a croissant too. I remember being gentle but not feeling gentle and when Claire finally got up and took my hand, I wanted to hold her hand so tight it hurt. The group was too far ahead to catch up but we walked toward them anyway.
When I think of that morning, the sun on my head, my daughter’s hand in mine, the pull of my son’s sleeping weight, the roll of waves, I see a picture of enough. There is a spot on the Fahaheel walk near the marina where the path juts to meet a breaker of giant stones protecting a small marina. When the day is windy, the Gulf crashes against the rocks, crashing and crashing. Wind carries the salt spray. The waves are loud enough to think. But that morning was calm. Claire stood on the ledge and we looked out at the water. I wish there was a single moment I could point to as when I yielded to motherhood but that morning is only one of many dots mapping the tough measure of enough.
What I have is enough. What I have is plenty and good. But that year I stayed home with a toddler and baby I wanted more. We made it to AlKout and found the group. We must have walked back together but I can’t name the conversation we had, though all of our conversations then were threads cut when a baby needed a change or a child wanted help tying his shoe, cut when it was lunchtime or naptime, and picked up again later when the baby was nursing or the kids found a game. I miss those women, all of them gone from Kuwait or moved away in a different way. That morning walking back from AlKout, one of them would have told me it’d be okay. And that afternoon when Claire was napping in her bed and Grant in his crib and the apartment was quiet, I might have called Jamie and leaned against the window, looking out at the stretch of sand and buildings between me and the Gulf, and we’d have talked about being tired. We’d have prayed for patience.
God was all I was sure of that year. My heart turning over, wanting enough.
I go back to that first year with two little ones. I stayed home. I wavered daily. I was angry and discontent. I was loving and pleased. I go back to that year because it remains formative. Like the first embarrassments, thrills and losses of childhood and adolescence, the first year with my daughter and son shows me something about myself. There were moments of recognition, when I saw who I was clearly. Claire sitting on the path was me. I wanted to quit.
I fantasized escape. My husband and I decided to wait three or four years to have a baby and the next month I woke from a dream, knew I was pregnant. For months I told myself this was good, this baby is a gift. And while that truth took hold, its roots were shallow. Storms came and I hated being a mother. I said it that way. That I hated being a mother. Because would you love me if I told you I thought an early miscarriage might have been a good gift too? I hated the interruption. But to what? All my daughter interrupted were possibilities clarified by the limits of new parenthood. And these possibilities only mattered, suddenly, viciously at three in the morning when my baby wouldn’t latch. These possibilities only mattered because they weren’t mine right that moment. As if no conception meant that I’d be wandering Paris now or on a book tour across the States now or training for my fourth ultramarathon now. No.
I love my Claire. I love my Grant. But those first three or four years of motherhood are years I wish I could go back to so I might lay on the couch with my babies and rest. So I might trust that writing in a journal is enough practice for now. So I might run roots deeper, to the reservoir of love God gives. So I might know this was good: a patient husband and two little ones who made me their world. It’s like I was always keeping an eye on the horizon, to see what better thing might come. During this time Jamie told me to give myself more grace. So here is grace. I was guilty of wanting more and less but the middle parts were beautiful: the walk in Fahaheel, bread I baked myself, my daughter and son settling in my arms. I remember the beautiful middle.
There’s a snippet of song I heard years later that says, Tell me what you need, I can do it right now, I can do it right now. The lyric reminds me of being a new mom and not wanting to give anything. But giving anyway. Giving with a wrong heart. Giving with a right heart. Giving because what would people say otherwise. Giving because the baby won’t take a bottle. Giving because I can’t lose a marriage. Giving because I am instructed to do so. I read the front half of Ephesians and the book of James often the year after Grant was born. I read the Bible to remember who I am. That year I understood I need the Gospel whispered, shouted, spoken to me each day. I need the Gospel to be louder than anger and lies and sorrow. That year I had nowhere to go. I was stuck in a small desert country. And I needed to be stuck. I needed to deal with junk, like my penchant for comparison and envy, my anger and insecurity. I needed to learn I have what I need to give, right now. That year I laid on my face before God and begged, practiced daily reliance on his love and grace.
Nursing Grant calmed me. One morning we were out and Grant was fussy. I found a bench in the shade and sat facing the sea, nursing my son. I love the sound my babies made when they ate, the suck and swallow. Sometimes I listen when they are thirsty now, drinking water too quickly, like hungry babies. The breeze, Grant at my breast, Claire nearby. Enough.
But not enough.
Jamie invited me to her Bible study. There I met a small group of expat moms. Relationships tighten and drift but during the two years I attended the study, three women braided themselves together. I was jealous of their friendship. I wanted to be the fourth woman to three who already cooked lunch for each other’s kids and spent entire days at one another’s apartments, laying babies in available cribs, settling spats between the bigger kids, putting on a video when the afternoon went long. I envied their dynamic. I wanted in. Like that morning walk in Fahaheel, when we met at the Sea Club and popped open strollers, put hats on kids, tucked snacks in diaper bags – that morning, I was the one who texted the invite but I only did that because I wanted to be there too, because I wanted to be part of a group that gathered more often without me. So when Claire sat on the path and the group walked on after Jamie asked was I sure, my shoulders clawed because this was not what I had in mind, not at all. I remember glancing at a truth I didn’t want to take in yet.
I had a dear friend that year, Monica, who lived four floors up. She stayed home with her son, born a month after Grant. We spent so many mornings and naptimes together. We went for walks with the little ones and swapped recipes, made each other lunch. We decided iced mochas were daily necessity. We had a friendship much like the one I envied. But I imagined I was less important than another friend of Monica’s, a woman who’d known her longer. That less-than feeling sucks pleasure from any sweet friendship, like tally marks keeping score of who is best or more or only among friends. It’s a terrible game. A couple of years ago, I emailed Monica an essay I’d written about the year after Grant was born, the year she and I drank iced mochas and laughed over nothing. But I didn’t write about iced mochas or laughing over nothing. The essay read a little like a serrated knife cutting to bone. I wasn’t ready to think how the year shaped me. I was only able to say what it felt like. What it felt like, in part. I wasn’t able to see the beautiful middle as clearly as the sharp edges of anger and the thick swallow of grief. The essay lacked the roundness of that year. I was jealous, yes. I was sad, yes. Oh, but I had Jamie and Bible study and Monica and Fahaheel walks. I still miss each. I miss Monica and one of the best, briefest years of friendship I’ve had.
When I sit on the low concrete wall in Fahaheel and look out at the Gulf, I let time slide. I don’t check my phone. I sit and let thoughts come and go. It’s the closest I get to sitting meditation.
When friends leave Kuwait, I say goodbye to them but also to our brand of friendship. Expats don’t have the luxury of waiting years to get to know their neighbors. Once friendship gains a bit of traction, it tends to go deep. We say goodbye to someone every year. Last year I said goodbye to a few close friends and this year I’ve had to crack open again to find kinship.
This is my seventh year in Kuwait. I’m lonely for my long friendships. I’m lonely for my friend Tara and her two girls who played with my kids. When I get lonely for one friend, I get lonely for the others. I see my friends in the places we were together. So when I take the kids to walk in Fahaheel I see Monica and me laughing when Jen checks the temperature on her phone to tell us our freezing cold day is only fifty-five. “Shorts weather in Wisconsin!” I say. I see Tara and me following our kids to dinner at a café with ice cream in glass dishes after. I see Tara stop on our walk back to the cars to take a picture of a mosque lit up in the night and I see dashes of light on the Gulf’s dark water, see the kids gather around a man selling ice creams from a cart, see the kids think they’ll get second desserts. I see Liana, Michelle, Jamie and me watch the kids kick up sand on the beach. I see us give a hug at parting.
Contentment is such work. Enough is a tough measure. Sometimes wanting more is a kind of refusal of what I hold. That first year with two little ones, God was kind. He started working truth more deeply in my heart. And now, I tell myself the lines have fallen for me in pleasant places. I tell myself again. Next year or the one after, we will leave Kuwait and I’ll take a last walk in Fahaheel, along a path bordering the Gulf that knows so much of my early motherhood, so much of my yield to plenty.
On this Saturday I send prayers up to the sky. I want this calm forever. This sea, this fish smell on the wind. I want my hair in tangles and my skin warm under midmorning sun. I want to feel neither thirsty nor hungry. I want this. On the beach, Claire and Grant are widening their circle. The sand drops thirty yards or so from the sea. When they were very little, the rule was to stay where I could see them. I’d shout if they wandered too far. Now I watch two blond heads dip below the drop. I watch for them to reappear and they do, running toward me with fistfuls of treasure and a story about a jellyfish.