My final post of this excursion… Rather, a sort of punctuation to the trip… On a Sunday in mid-June, four days after we arrived home, Geoff and I threw a big cookout in our yard to both celebrate our kids’ birthdays (we usually do this on Memorial Day, but we were away then) and to wish all the men a happy Father’s Day. How I loved that afternoon. My and Geoff’s parents were there, both our sisters, our cousins, aunts and uncles and so many old friends from Arlington, as well as our new friends from Concord. There were loved ones everywhere – which is exactly how I like to live my life: in the midst of the people I treasure. From one group that I adore to another, it was the perfect transition for us back into our regular lives. Until next year – or maybe not – we’re safely and happily reinstalled back at home. And we’re already looking forward to whatever adventure comes next.
As I write this, it’s been three weeks since we returned. And already, our time in Jordan seems so long ago. I remember coming back from my first Dialogue, in 2009, and talking with treasured friend and advisor Monica about how I wanted to channel the energy I felt into something worthwhile. I feared that my desire to do something about what I saw would fade quickly as the mundane elements of my own life started to take shape again. And such was the case. There was no book. No journal article. No campaign to raise money for an organization that could help.
Three years later, I feel something a bit similar, but this time, not in relation to myself. My life is too full – kids, ambitious husband, yard full of flower beds, demanding students, and a group of sister-status friends – to contemplate such things right now. This time, it is my students who want to do more, write more, go back. As I read over their final blog posts in preparation for their grades, I saw that so many of them feel they will go back to Jordan – or at least go somewhere in the world to see, understand, report and write about what brought them there. I am truly inspired by this – and as satisfied by it as if I had expressed it myself.
How lucky I was to lead this group of hard-working students. How sad I was to leave them all behind three weeks ago, when our adventure came to an end. The first day back, I wrote this to the group:
I bet if I told you in April what you would be doing, all on your own there, you wouldn’t have believed me. I bet, as you reflect over the coming days and weeks and think back to what it was like, you will be astonished that you pulled this off. I’m not at all surprised, by the way. I knew how talented and accomplished you all were going in. All it did was reaffirm for me what I already knew about how rewarding it would be to guide such a wonderful, talented and inspiring group of men and women.
To that I would only add that as I survey the work they did (I’m still editing five or so articles), I am enlivened by the gallery they created. There’s such satisfaction that comes with a promise and the delivery of that pledge. I promised them an experience that would alter their view of themselves and their chosen profession. And they delivered work that altered their status from student to professional.
On our last full evening in Jordan, I got a call from two-time Dialogue student Anthony, asking me to edit with him in person at a coffee shop across Amman. Poor Anthony. I was crazed with work, and not at all patient. I told him no, that he’d have to muster through alone, and maybe even hung up on him. Not a minute later, Geoff called and told me to knock it off – that I had to go. When I arrived, all the students were assembled there, waiting to say thanks and goodbye. And as a measure of their collective generosity, they presented a beautiful necklace – a silver ring that on it says in Arabic that God will protect me if I allow. They also presented a card – a card like no other I have received. In tiny writing, scribbled in all different directions in different colored pens, it was full of love and gratitude and the sort of grace that comes only from the most open-hearted. Of course, I’m the one who is most grateful. I’m the one who is full of affection. I bet in April, if I had told myself how rewarding all of this would again be, I wouldn’t have believed it. But now, with my necklace and beautiful card as reminders, I won’t ever forget.
I should have been used to it – the spectacular wonders of Jordan. Petra and its monuments carved into stone, the Wadi Rum desert, the Red Sea and its beds of coral. But I’m not. These thing still take my breath. And I am still grateful, as I watch my kids play in the desert dust, or climb a rock under the full moon, or try to hang onto a camel, that these experiences are among the most special we will ever share together. Here are some pictures to show glimpses of what we did on our four-day excursion to the south of our home base, Amman. (Click on any photo to see it enlarged.)
It goes without saying that we’re treated well in Jordan. I stay in a five-star hotel while I’m there. We are fed like royalty, with spectacular meals for which sometimes a dozen plates of different foods are brought to the center of the table. For class, my journalism students are given the open, airy, comfortable and large front rooms of a villa in the lovely Abdoun neighborhood of Amman; part proper “classroom” part lounge with sofas and beanbags and rugs over marble floors, it is the perfect place to teach and we spend many many hours there writing, editing, strategizing and just being together. For the duration of the trip, we are comfortable and safe and happy and well taken care of thanks to a rotating team of partners including a wonderful man named Raed and two lovely women named Dema and Jumana.
But no one is a greater gift to me in Jordan than Ahmad. I’m not sure what his official title is, but I think of him as the man who makes everything happen. Example: When we first arrived and a group dinner was being arranged, I asked Ahmad if there would be live music. The answer was no but I saw him on the phone five minutes later. When we got there, two musicians were just arriving to set up their instruments. Ahmad made it happen. And so it followed throughout the five weeks. “Carlene are you happy?” “Carlene have you eaten?” “Carlene did you like it?” He learned one day that I was distressed about a slow Internet connection in the villa. By the end of the week, the system had been upgraded and the connection was lighting fast. He learned of my favorite drink of fresh lemon juice, mineral water and tons of fresh mint – and ordered it for me at restaurants before I sat down. When I needed a ride somewhere beyond a quick taxi across town, a driver would show up within 10 minutes; as we drove, I would hear his phone ring again and again. It was Ahmad, making sure everything was all right.
“You watch over me like no one else, Ahmad,” I said to him at some point, “like a brother would.” I will miss Ahmad more than anything else as I begin to reinstall myself back into life in the U.S. To me, he is Jordan – generous and loving and open and honorable. After two years with him, he is indeed like family, and it was painful to me to leave him behind. In our last hours in the country, all the students and my family gathered at SIT because we were leaving, on the bus, at 2 a.m. to hit a 6:10 a.m. departure. I of course told Ahmad not to come; he has six children, including a 5-month-old baby. But at 1:30 a.m. on the way out of my hotel, I got a text from him that he was there, waiting. As he stood at the front of the bus to say goodbye to the students, one of them hollered “We love you!” and then everyone else thunderously applauded. I know Ahmad knew she was speaking for all of us. I know he knew how much we all appreciated what he had done. He paused for a moment, and then pushed his hand, palm facing out, toward them. “I love you too,” he said finally. The last time I heard from him before we left Jordan soil was through the bus driver. His phone was ringing; it was Ahmad again, making sure everything was all right.
Some students wanted nothing to do with my kids. Nor should they have had to. They weren’t doing a school of education Dialogue of Civilizations program. They don’t have to like children and they shouldn’t feel compelled to deal with them. Some students, though, were drawn to Lila and Cal. They were always there, pinching Cal’s belly and asking him to find his nose, or offering to braid Lila’s long hair. They sensed when I or Geoff needed help and swooped in. On the bus, they let Cal play with them over the tops of seats. In the pools, they allowed Lila to swim around them when maybe, they’d rather be alone. I kept thinking to myself, “He’s going to be a good dad.” And, “What a wonderful mother she’ll be.” In Jordan, everyone talks about “the tribe.” It’s a critical component of the social structure there: People watch out for each other; no one stands alone. That’s why the country is literally overrun with refugees or “guests” of other countries fleeing tyrannical governments. That’s why, when we got there, everyone rushed to help us do our work - even high-ranking ministers of government and a prince who insisted we eat his dessert as he answered questions about free trade and the state of education in Palestinian camps. I am so grateful to have witnessed that sort of generosity among those people. And I am so encouraged to have witnessed a similar generosity among so many students. I can only hope to aspire to the same sort of mindfulness of others that they already have as part of who they are.
There must be something about the air and water at the Dead Sea that makes Calvin so happy to be there. I have almost this same picture from last year. Maybe I manufactured this deja vu, because I wore the same bathing suit, and sat under the same little thatch hut. Geoff, again, was to my left (probably on his iPhone – last year it was a Blackberry… both evil in my mind…) And Lila was again, up above me in the fancy pool with all of the students. I couldn’t help but wince a little bit, as Geoff snapped this photo, at the passage of time. I felt it acutely because it was all exactly the same as last year – yet I am 41 now and my kids are already 10 and 2. A little bit after this, I went, alone, into the water and let it lift me up to its surface. Soon, I had floated without any effort far away from Jordan’s shore, and Israel was getting closer in front of me. The sky was muted and the sounds off the sand were quiet to my ears. How peaceful I felt for that hour or so that I floated. And I started to think how grateful I was to have had that year – full of family and friends and new beginnings in our miracle of a new home and neighborhood. I don’t mind the passage of time, I guess. All it means, I realized, is that I’m accumulating more and more of what makes me happy. Indeed, there must be something about the air and water at the Dead Sea…
… always finds the time to write a tribute blog post, on his own travel blog, before we leave wherever we’ve been. (I’ve reposted the link here.) No one is more supportive than Geoff. He took off three weeks of work at The Boston Globe to serve as Mr. Mom while I edited and managed our online magazine/blog. And while we had some great adventures throughout the country, most of the time, he was stuck managing the extreme heat with two kids in tow… I’ll say it again: how lucky I am… Someday I’ll write a tribute blog to him as loving as the ones he continues to write for me.