Ingratitude, and In Gratitude

I always know it has been too long between blog posts when too many half-developed ideas jumble together in my mind, clamoring to get out before they morph into something else with the passage of time. I try to think through my ideas, make them distinct, articulable, frame a coherent narrative from which I can draw conclusions. But sometimes it is not until I just release the words to the page, as it were, that the cross-currents of thoughts begin to flow in one direction and I understand what it is I want to say better than I could when I left it in my own mind. It is almost as if writing is my process of thinking; whether and to what extent I succeed in making a point is another matter.

This isn’t everything, but it’s all true.

As we pass the winter solstice and approach Christmas, I have wondered how to make sense of this year. If someone had told me a year ago what this year would be like, I would not have believed it. A year ago today I returned from my immersion in Ecuador. Later, we sat in our Arlington, VA apartment for almost five months before moving to Mexico, trying to stay safe. We watched spring arrive and transition to summer, all through the windows.

I think I had COVID-19 in February, back when I thought it was a SARS reprise ravaging holiday-makers on cruise ships marooned off the coast of California. For me it was like a bad, lingering cold that persisted for three weeks. My husband had it more intensely shortly after, sweating and burning with fever night and day, until on the fourth morning he suddenly felt great, took a shower, put on a suit, and went to work. In the meantime, I hunted everywhere for toilet paper.

Neither of us ever struggled to breathe. We did not know or even suspect we’d had it until July, despite having been all winter in the global mixing bowl of the Foreign Service Institute. We had been scared all that time at home that we would catch it through the air on a walk and die, not knowing that maybe we’d already beat it. So we’d stayed in.

We still feel tired now. Well, as someone who has struggled with autoimmune disease for more than a dozen years, and bone weariness that flares and recedes and does not abate with adequate rest, I am used to being tired. I have been sick with viruses more times than I can count, and without normal immune function, I had little choice but to carry on. And as those who know me can attest, I am tough. In five months here, I have never yet called out sick – except two days I felt sick and then teleworked the whole time.

But this is different. These days, I usually go to bed a short time after coming home from work. My mood is generally bright, but I have a hard time concentrating. It does not make it easier that I have a herniated disc in my neck, and two vertebrae in my spinal column with no disc between them to arrest the crushing of my sciatic nerve.

As a result, I am behind on cleaning the house, personal correspondence, and more. I am waiting for it to be safe enough in El Paso to have another back surgery. But for now, I am in the middle of a monthlong stint covering for my boss, and crashing and burning is not an option. So I show up each day to work with and lead the best team ever and I give as much as I can. Then I switch to low power mode when I leave the office. I would love to hire someone to clean our house twice a week, but it is a health risk we cannot take right now.

I watched people I know on social media traveling interstate, gathering across multiple households with elderly relatives for Thanksgiving, and enjoying photos and a meal with no masks. The selfishness and cognitive dissonance astounds me. I have not gotten leave to see my immediate family at the holidays since 2014. This will not be that year. Foreign Service families are used to making these sacrifices already. It seems some of our compatriots lack the constitution and discipline that others learned as children; I wonder if becoming sick after such risky behavior they would be willing to die at home so as not to risk the lives of our frontline medical personnel who have been flat-out for nearly a year. Somehow I doubt it.

I wish we could have invited someone to our table this year, but we still enjoyed a lovely meal

The abject poverty in Ciudad Juárez is impossible not to see. When I drive in the city, I keep my windows rolled up; at many intersections and even on the Mexican side of the border bridge, people begging or selling flowers and snacks come right up to your car and stand there, inches from you. Even when they are masked, I do not roll my window down. It isn’t safe. But the children, and the lady with no legs, haunt me. The food lines in El Paso are hard to miss.

We have had COVID-19 illness in our diplomatic community here, and some of our colleagues have died, or lost friends and family members. A couple of very close colleagues became ill, and recovered. My colleagues touch applicants’ documents, raise their voices to be heard through the thick glass and across our crummy microphones. They sanitize their hands again and again and shudder a little. Some people are afraid to eat in the office.

But, my family is healthy and well. My husband and I have been employed all year. As I watch people declare bankruptcy, lose their businesses, cry over how they will make their mortgage payments, I feel guilt over disliking my assigned house. I feel hot and annoyed in my mask at work, frustrated trying to clean the cracked and grimy tiles and baseboards throughout the house, aggravated with road closures and traffic in Juárez when I’m just trying to get my groceries from El Paso home before they melt. And then I get slapped with reality: so many people are dying of COVID-19 in the border region that the community is struggling to bury them all.

And I wonder, is it OK to feel sad when what I lost is less? How do I get to feel sad about missing my stepdaughter’s high school graduation when someone else lost a relative to COVID-19? How do I get to feel tired when some people are working and teaching their kids from home and my free time is my own (until the duty phone rings)? How do I get to feel annoyed about the way my house was treated before I moved into it when other people are scared they will lose their homes? Heaven help me if I say an unkind word to my husband when my friend’s husband just went on a yearlong deployment with almost no notice.

And I think the answer is – you get to feel how you feel, with grace. Grace for yourself and others, and keeping the bigger picture in perspective.

So, I get in a brief funk and then I gather up some of the force. I donated money to the El Paso food bank. I bought a Christmas gift for a child of a local consulate employee I’ve never met. I turned our unit meeting today into an opportunity to express gratitude while wearing Christmas lights around my neck rather than one more virtual report-out. We shop local Juárez businesses to make our home nicer wherever we can.

Multi Jardín, Ciudad Juárez

And I remember that like every other time in this Foreign Service life, home is where the heart is. Even when some days it’s hard to put your whole heart in it. (Or into cleaning it!) It really is okay.

Sometimes, a simple hot meal is all you need

I’m OK, Mom

Mexican dolls in El Paso

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Sarah W Gaer

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