Part Five: Cubic Meters Of Stuff

Part Five: Cubic Meters Of Stuff

When I was in college I read about pioneer women. My family teases me about this because for two or three years I was obsessed. I read books about the trails heading west of Missouri, fascinated by the risks men and women took to stake a claim or meet a spouse or carve a house into dirt when the chance of finding gold or growing a crop was about as good as dying of cholera or going crazy on the prairie. I loved the women. I read their diaries while huddled in a dark booth at the back of the campus coffeehouse, scratching notes in my composition book and flagging pages. I color-coded entries. Like red for illness and death, blue for family or marriage, green for wagon trains. One of my writing professors encouraged my idea to write poetry and narrative based on these women’s experiences so I spent a semester putting together a portfolio Chasing The Sun.

I romanticized the freedom I imagined pioneer women must have sensed, cutting ties to a familiar place. That was very much what I wanted when Justin and I moved abroad. I remember envying pioneer women: they had no Skype.

Now I better appreciate invisible tethers to home. I feel pulls to Wisconsin, Colombia and occasionally Italy, where I was born. But I also feel pulls to places I’ve been only briefly, like Vienna or Budapest, Nairobi, Wadi Rum in Jordan, and imagine this is being a pioneer woman. The belly stir of guessing where we might settle next, connections we rope around the world.

But here is something else I read about the pioneer woman, that when she left a homestead she might first sweep or dust, closing the door to a tidy room, or she might climb up the wagon wheel to join her husband on the buckboard, leaving behind crumbs and a burned skillet on the sawhorse table.

Our last spring in Colombia I came home one afternoon to see a spare apartment. No pictures or mirrors left on the walls, no candles or cloths on end tables, no knick knacks or postcards on the kitchen counter. I found our “us clutter” in a suitcase, breakables wrapped in newspaper or dish towels. I put everything back in its place. We were only in Colombia for two years and clearing the walls and tabletops of stuff took a couple of hours. We’ve been in Kuwait nearly eight years. I might leave a skillet on the table when I go.

We bought our dining table at the end of our first year. I was proud of its sturdiness and shine. I liked sitting our family at one end for dinner or having friends fill the chairs for weekend breakfast. We spend a lot of time at this table. One spring break we turned the table into an art studio, leaving paints and brushes and papers out all week, drifting to and from the watercolor and India ink. Justin and kids construct Lego scenes on the table, each of them working on a different part until the restaurant, bank and pet shop line up. I write at this table sometimes, at night, under the shadow of bad overhead lighting. Justin spends the weekend typing work for his masters classes. During Christmas, this table fills with cookies cooling, icing setting. Lately, we play Uno, crazy eights or Qwirkle with the kids before bed.

I have pounded my fists on the dining table too and sat slumped over its cool shine. Justin and I argue across from each other. We get up and leave, go to another room. The kids refuse to eat what I fix at this table. I sat at this table one morning, holding Grant to my breast, and asked Justin to please not go to school today, the sky outside just lightening to another long short day. This is the table I drop my bags on, when I come in. I leave my jacket hanging over a chair.

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Part Four: Bucket List

A lot of my current writing centers on leaving Kuwait, what this place and moment are for me, and I’m just going with it, writing what sits in my head. I also have two nonfiction (Kuwait related) projects I want to finish by the end of May. I think I’m writing as much of this country as I can in one sitting.


kites17

In the courtyard a week ago, Tim asked about my bucket list. I don’t think I have one, I said. Sure you do, he said, You just don’t know it yet. A small circle of us talked about what to do before leaving Kuwait, what others had done before leaving Kuwait. We joked about ordering delivery breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert. Or pulling up to a bakala, rolling down the window and asking for a pack of gum, blocking traffic while we wait for a hundred fils change. We tried to remember how others had left Kuwait. What essential last things had they done?

The next morning we went for breakfast at Early Bird, then for a walk in Fahaheel. It was National Day weekend and a group of men played cricket on the beach, giant rocks as bases. Other families were out for picnics. The kids ran through the sand. From Fahaheel we headed to a spot in the desert for the Al Farsi kite festival. We’d gone a few years ago and had talked about going again but hadn’t. Tim was right I had a bucket list and didn’t know it. That Saturday morning I thought of the kites and realized this was a day I wanted again before it was gone, before we couldn’t drive past oil refineries that look like an imaginary machine of pipes bending and jutting, stacks like lit birthday candles. Before we couldn’t drive past all the tents that pop up in the desert during winter, televisions and fridges inside powered by generators; before we couldn’t drive past a herd of camel again, before we couldn’t drive another road cut through sand sand sand.

So we drove out to the kite festival. Years ago, staring at kites mattered to me. Sometimes we get a day we didn’t know we needed. Then and last weekend, my face turned up to the sky to marvel at the giant billows and flaps of color, I got what I needed. And when I looked around me, I got what I needed. I will miss these people: the stair step children dressed identically as Kuwaiti flags, the woman whose hijab and abaya sparkles with Swarovski crystals, the man in a winter dishdasha and wrapped gutra, the fat adolescent in sweatpants, the young woman with sunglasses and a bag that cost my month’s salary. I’ll miss the nannies in their uniform pajamas and rubber sandals, the men who pick up what gets left at a table or dropped on the ground, the cluster of workers at a restaurant booth making change as fast as they can.

Knowing this would be our last year in Kuwait, I returned in August saying goodbye. I ordered as much shwarma in three months as I’d eaten the previous three years. Every other week, I bought a half dozen pistachio maamoul. I returned to almond stuffed and coconut rolled dates. We ordered bigger spreads of Lebanese food, stopped off for falafels and hummus on the way home. It isn’t sustainable, eating my way through goodbye. I want to miss pistachio maamoul, not be bored of the treat.

When the weather cooled, I put the kids’ bikes in the car for afterschool rides. We’re usually out on the weekends once or twice but this was it, next year no Gulf, so we added midweek walks. I found myself missing my old routine, writing in a café on the way home from school, so I did that a couple of times but it was different because I sat at the end of a long day thinking what to make for dinner when I got home instead of having drifty thoughts or lines of poetry or stories come together over coffee.

I am trying to notice things. Like the stretch along the thirty that was only light poles and sand when we arrived is now giant villas side by side. Or the spot Justin remembers blooming with tiny yellow flowers one spring that hasn’t bloomed like that since. The rain that leaves dust pocks on our cars. The smell of gas in Fahaheel. The stink of dumpsters on a hot day. Even Hussein’s morning call to prayer. I have a bucket list like some people write their to-do list after chores and errands: I know what is on my list right in the middle of seeing a father hand his infant to his wife in the front seat, right in the middle of a Filipino wait staff shout singing happy birthday to a surprised and embarrassed man, right in the middle of crossing the campus courtyard and looking up at small leafed trees. My Kuwait is small, built of routine. Even so, there are many things I will do and think, this is it here, and I might be a little sad or I might feel pleased in the moment, full up with joy. I don’t know how this goes.

Tomorrow we’re out for another walk. This one to Marina with the bikes. We’ll have a fatayer picnic after. The kids will want ice cream because it’s getting warm enough for that again and I’ll send them with a KD to a little stand. We’ll stay on a patch of grass through the afternoon because we won’t get many more of these, the sun tiring me even though I only sit and read or talk or watch. We’ll come home to our concrete courtyard and the kids will have energy enough to run around before bed, before another early start to another week. I won’t miss all of this. But I don’t want to miss what I will.

I Felt Like My Seniors: Writing A Personal Narrative That Says “Like Me, Choose Me”

English 12 started the school year with the College Essay. The all important personal narrative that matters more now that more college admission boards read applications holistically. When I applied to state university nearly twenty years ago (!) I remember handwriting a couple of paragraphs in pen. I do remember thinking about what I wanted to say first but I don’t remember worrying if those sentences would sell me as a student because I was weirdly unworried about where I went to college, thinking I’d move on to an art and design school later. This passive approach to major life decisions was a pattern I kept through dating, career choice, marriage, jobs and children up until maybe two years ago. It’s mostly worked out. But this year Justin and I are looking for a new country and while I’m not anxious about where we’ll land, I also want to be wise about the search, upping our chances at choosing a place rather than taking what seems the easiest or most practical option.

So as my seniors were thinking how to frame themselves in a single, short narrative, I was also worrying what I look like on paper. I spent a couple of months picking at my resume, counting the many times I opened the document, sighed, and closed it. Then I had to write a bio for the international teaching placement service we’re using. I was in the thick of reading college essay drafts and revisions. During conferences with students, we’d look at whether they were telling a specific story to illustrate their character or ambition. We’d point where to expand, where to cut. We’d commiserate over the difficulty of conclusions. All the while, I penned bio starts in my notebook and thought it was hopeless, I wouldn’t find a way to say to potential employers: This is who I am!

One Friday afternoon the kids were out and I made myself write the bio. A lot of my essays get a first draft like this, the just-write-it-now draft. After I’ve written an idea again and again in my notebook, I surrender it to a typed page, see how I might shape it.

My first draft was long. I had to cut nearly a third of the words. Concision appeals. Having to pare a piece forces precision into your work. I don’t totally like the short version best. However, some of the revised diction and syntax works better. While I posted the short version as my bio, I decided to create a last draft combining my long and short version in a piece I think works well. What is gained or lost in the expansion or cuts?

First, the combination draft at 971 words:

This summer I learned to bake French macarons. I can buy them at a bakery for a half dinar or about two dollars apiece but I wanted to see if I could bake a tray myself. I do this sometimes, pick a pastry and learn how to make it. When we first arrived in Kuwait, I spent a few months perfecting the croissant. For a while I baked our bread. I spent a year playing with chocolate chip cookie recipes until I found one I like enough to use exclusively. And now, the French macaron.

I bought a kitchen scale and weighed one hundred twenty grams of almond flour and two hundred grams unrefined powdered sugar which I then sifted between two bowls half a dozen times. Making macarons is meticulous. Recipes use words like “just” as in, whip the egg whites until they just form a stiff peak, and warn against over folding the almond flour and sugar with the egg. But you don’t know you’ve done it right until the macarons are in the oven forming crinkly feet at their edges. Even then, the shells might be hollow in the center. Macarons are maddening. I’d finish a batch and guess what to change on the next round. I ate a lot of macarons in one month. I sent plates to neighbors. I found my favorite flavors – pistachio, salted caramel, and raspberry. Most of my macarons were imperfect, the rounds a little lopsided, the filling too thick or thin. I had fun though.

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