Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Universal Language of Uno

We live on a military installation, and in our housing area are some finished houses and duplexes that are reserved for foreign officers and their families who come here for military courses. We've met many different families from all over the world - Pakistan, India, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Poland, to name a few. We are also on very good terms with the British and Canadian Liason officers and their families. Getting to meet these individuals has been one of the highlights of my experience here. We have built friendships with some of these families, particularly our Lebanese and Pakistani neighbors (who have since returned to their own countries). I have to say that it is easier to do when they all speak English. Recently, a new family moved in across the street with 5 beautiful children. I took over some fresh baked apple bread (which was still warm and promptly crumbled; Nice to meet you, have some mangled bread:) and attempted to talk to them only to find out that the wife and children didn't speak English and the husband was asleep. "We'll come back later," I told them, though I don't know if they understood. I met the family the following evening at the park and found out they were from Kuwait. I am a sucker for these beautiful brown eyed children, who sit on their front porch with their hands on their chins waiting for someone to come by to play. I encourage my kids to go out and meet them, find some game they can play together. This sometimes works, and sometimes does not. Last year, a family from Saudi Arabia lived behind us, and their kids were a little young, a little more rowdy (like my own), and my kids had a difficult time with them. They did try hard, bless their hearts, but were constantly upset when the other children didn't understand the rules of the games they were making up, or ran off with their toys, etc. I also had my first experience visiting with this Saudi mother (who couldn't leave the house to supervise the kids unless she had on her robe and veil). Making small talk with anyone is not my strongest point - I get nervous and can't think of a thing to say. So, it was even worse when the person sitting across from me didn't speak English. She ended up pulling out a picture dictionary, and we made a go of it as best we could. Apparently, social visits between women are an important part of life in the middle east, and it is considered sort of rude to not sit down and accept their drink (I've usually been given some kind of orange drink - Tang or Sunni delight) and food. OK, fast forward to this week. Early this week, the kids and I went outside and filled up our little swimming pool, and coaxed the Kuwaiti kids into coming over. They filled up their bigger pool and organized a few games. Turns out the oldest girl (about 11), knows enough English to organize the younger kids (aka, boss them around:). My kids did really well - they had fun. So, yesterday, when their kids came over and wanted our kids to go over to their place, I was all for it. I'd been watching them sitting on their porch and sidewalk waiting for us to get home from our errands. Emma wanted me to come with her, so I went along. Sat down, was given my traditional orange drink and slice of cream pie, and tried to think of something simple to say. It was painful, really. I asked about the ages of the children, which towns here they had visited (not sure she understood that question). After a few minutes the conversation started to lag. Then I noticed a deck of familiar looking cards on their table. "Do you play Uno?" I asked? "Uno, yes, yes!" they all said. I ran to fetch TJ who was next door, and we all sat down to a rousing game of Uno (which I actually won, though it isn't important). What was important to me was finding some common ground, some way to break though the language problems and make friends. I am optimistic that our relations with this family will be enriching for all of us. Already my boys are requesting more soccer time with Abdurazag (their 9 year old), and Emma lets the two oldest girls (Manar and Najed) carry her around and dote on her. I think this is the beginning of a nice global friendshp -although I know it will be sticky at times due to lack of a common language. Lucky for us there is the universal language of Uno.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

half of my heart

This being father's day, it's the perfect time to explain my blog name, if I can. Half of my heart refers to one of the popular window stickers found on military posts - "Half of my heart is in Iraq", or "Half of my heart is in Afghanistan". The sticker lets people know the family has a servicemember deployed - their husband or wife. If I ever write an autobiography, this will be the title. For military wives, deployment stories are like childbirth stories or family lore. Military wives swap them over cups of coffee or happy meals while your kids play together at McDonalds. Deployment is part of our shared history.

My working theory about deployment is "That which does not kill you makes you stronger."
I've started trying to narrate our first deployment story, but haven't made it all the way through yet. I'll probably post it once I finish. We are nearing the end of our second deployment now, with plenty of adventures that need recording, too.

Anyway, back to the title - Our first deployment started almost 6 years ago - and it was one of those trial by fire experiences. Terrible but important at the same time. A little background on me - I come from a family of strong women (the men are strong and unique too) and was raised on the saying "Anything boys can do, girls can do better." My feminist leanings were further encouraged at Bryn Mawr. On top of this, my parents divorced when I was 21, leaving me all kinds of confused about how to manage in a marriage. My husband Tracy, bless him, came from a very stable, traditional family. But we had different ideas about marriage - does a marriage mean you belong to each other, or is it made up of two individuals choosing to be together? It may seem esoteric, but it was upsetting. And, how do men and women truly work together in a marriage? What unique abilities do fathers bring to the table when compared with mothers (here I have to say my Psych background was completely unhelpful). Introduce kids to the mix, and introduce our first deployment. In one way, deployment is like a carefully controlled experiment about the importance of fathers in the lives of their children (or mothers, for those deployed moms). There is no confounding effect of divorce (at least not in our case) or significant parental conflict (usually). You take a (fairly) normal family, remove the dad for a long period of time, observe the reactions of the remaining family members. Classic. Introduce situational stress (lots), which magnifies the reactions of the family members. What do you learn? Or really, what did I learn? It also helped that I reviewed what little information I could find about the importance of fathers in the lives of their children for a father who was looking to gain custody of his adolescent son (I was paid for this, it wasn't my idea). All these events propelled me into much more serious pondering about this man I married, and his importance to me and to our children. The whole experience was incredibly humbling. I really didn't manage as well as I thought I could by myself. I needed him - not just to help clean, or take care of kids, or fix the broken down trucks and sink. As I said, my psychology background didn't really help me figure this out at all. There aren't many theories about the critical nature of fathers (though I found some good information in long term studies of children of divorced parents). So, I searched for answers in church materials and scriptures. My church teaches that fatherhood is a sacred responsibility. Fathers preside over the families, they provide and protect. I used to think of that as old-fashioned, but it suddenly made much more sense. I missed his leadership, his protection, his thoughtful decision making (I'm far too impulsive). Now, during this current deployment, I see how the kids need his firmness. I see how much they miss him. I really was unprepared for how much the kids missed their dad. The incredible sadness due to the separation. All of the sudden, the account in Genesis seemed so important - "And the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man. And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man. Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh." Genesis 2:22-24. I love the fact that Eve was made from a rib - her origins were close to Adam's heart. And, that through marriage, two individuals are united into one flesh. One heart.

I'm not meaning to get preachy. I'm not sure I can even put into words how exactly my thinking changed, though it did. I made up my mind to search for ways to better support Tracy in his roles as father and patriarch of our family. My illusion of my independence (which was pretty well blown by the whole deployment experience) softened. I depended on him and needed him. What a difference it has made.

I haven't ever told Tracy about this soul searching. Frankly, I'm embarrased that it took me so long to really value the unique gifts and abilities he brings to our marriage. It's not that I didn't love him, because I have, from the time we met. But now I'm more aware of the problems that crop up (subtle and not) when he isn't around. I'm more aware of his place in our lives. So, I titled my blog half of my heart out of gratitude for what I've learned, and for Tracy.