Thursday, December 31, 2009
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
When the helicopter door roared open in Gardez last month, I felt a dull, nauseating emptiness. The bleak mountain base camp* that greeted me served as a crushing reminder: There are several months left before this is over. Among soldiers returning from leave this sense of gloom is both common and severe, marking what is typically the lowest point in a deployment. It doesn’t matter how many months remain on your tour. They might as well be centuries.
The experience of my last two deployments has taught me to manage that feeling of emptiness as well as the winter tedium that still lies ahead. I’ll distract myself with books or writing. I’ll find small pleasures, however rare, in an otherwise dim daily grind. And believe it or not, there are pleasures to be found. Spontaneous snowball fights between Afghan workers on break. Sergeant Lawver’s cinnamon-spiked coffee in the tactical operations center. A stray cat we named Dog, who prowls around our barracks in the evening, seeking food and companionship.
These things, however, won’t make my missing the holidays any easier to bear. Thanksgiving was an especially depressing affair, marked by processed turkey, a lackluster attempt at decorating our mess tent and a palpable absence of patriotism among the troops. I celebrated Molly’s birthday a couple of days later by phone – the third time in as many years that I’ve missed her birthday. And here in Afghanistan, it’s most certainly NOT beginning to look a lot like Christmas. There are no Christmas trees or eggnog. No music or laughter. It seems sure to pass with little fanfare.
On Christmas day, I’ll line up with dozens of other soldiers at a phone bank to call my mom, dad and sister, Cara. They’ll be celebrating with my grandmother, cousins, aunts and uncles at the family farm in North Carolina. When I talk to my father, he’ll mutter something about the “goddamn war.” My mother will make her best effort not to cry. Cara will try to be uplifting. Then everyone else will get on the phone. “Come home soon, Matt,” some will say. Or, “We miss you this year. It’s just not the same without you.” I know this, because that is how I spent Christmas four years ago. By phone. From Iraq.
Yet Christmas this year won’t be all humbug. I have much to be grateful for.
Since June, when I first arrived in Afghanistan, scores of people –family, friends, colleagues and even people I’ve never met – have shown support, love and genuine concern for my well-being. My family has remained a constant source of strength for me, answering inconvenient calls in the middle of the night or offering just the right mix of advice and encouragement at moments when I feel I’m about to crack. Molly, too, has handled this separation brilliantly, complaining little and constantly reminding me that when all this finally ends, life will be as it once was – or better. I pity other soldiers here who don’t have a Molly in their lives.
Of course you’d expect, or at least hope, that my parents and sister and girlfriend would be my most committed supporters. And they are. But over the last few months, I’ve been surprised by a deluge of e-mails, letters and packages I’ve received from all over the United States. Many come from people I knew little before this year. Some of them are from outright strangers. I’ve reconnected with friends from my childhood and college, largely through this blog. And it’s ironic, but I’ve gotten to know Molly’s family better through this experience than I had in the two years we’d been dating when I deployed.
So despite the inconveniences and discomforts of another year at war, another Christmas away from home, I don’t consider this experience to be lost time. Christmas this week may not be the joyous celebration it has been in the past, nor will New Year’s or Valentine’s Day. But I can live with that. Because if this year, and the loving people who have endured it with me, have taught me anything, it’s that I am truly rich in life.
I look forward to the day when I will leave Gardez. I imagine it often. With a rucksack on my back and my rifle strapped to my side, I’ll file into a helicopter with a dozen other departing soldiers. The chopper’s beating blades will obscure my last view of this place in a cloud of swirling dust. Then we’ll swoop low over the barren Shahi-Kot Valley for the last time and head toward the miles of mountains that will lead us home.
*Just before my leave began, my unit was transferred to a different base in Gardez about a mile down the road.
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
I’ve written a number of posts for this blog in the last month. I’ve written them and edited them and I’ve come close to posting them only to decide they’re no good.
All of these posts come from the right place: they come from a place that cares, that loves, that wants to be engaged in the act of writing, a place that makes me feel closer to Matt. But it’s a tricky place, one that goes back and forth on how to manage my emotions, hindering my coherent thought and my ability to trust in my beliefs. As a result, my writing has been sparse and cloudy – well-intentioned and occasionally eloquent, but ultimately confused.
I miss Matt; I love Matt. But here at home my long days are consumed by the writing of my book, which I often worry will never be finished, and sometimes it’s too much to think outside of my tiny box, beyond the encroaching deadline.
It’s too much for me to write about religion or death, which I attempted last week, because that’s complicated and depressing and maybe I just don’t want to know what I believe on that subject.
It’s too much for me to write about Thanksgiving, a post that I pondered but didn’t even begin, because I don’t know how to write about Thanksgiving without a recipe, and that just didn’t seem to fit.
It’s too much for me to write about Christmas and the different traditions of Matt’s family and mine because I haven’t yet finished my shopping for gifts or wrapping or mailing them, and, hey, that won’t bring Matt back anyway. He’ll still be alone in Afghanistan for Christmas. And for his 30th birthday next month, surrounded by violence and cold drifts of snow.
Matt’s deployment has made the holidays difficult both here and far. It’s a simple reality, but exhausting to process nonetheless. At times, both Matt and I have forgotten how hard it is for the other. Like this morning, when we fought on the phone, neither of us willing to give an inch, each in possession of only our own perspectives and our own pain. The fight didn’t last long, but it happened. We both need to remember that we’re not alone.
Anyway. Writing. So, I’m in a rut. I hope to soon emerge. Until then, here’s a recipe. I know I said that recipes weren’t appropriate here. But I changed my mind. Today I decided that the place that loves and cares and hinders and hopes and makes writing sometimes such a chore—well that place just wants a cookie. Alright? Alright.
Here is a recipe for my mother’s traditional holiday cookies, affectionately known as “Monsters.” They live up to their name. They are massive things, studded with toasted pecans and chunks of chocolate. My mother and I make them each year, covering every surface of the kitchen in clouds of flour and nibbles of nuts. For me, cooking always helps.
Adapted from my mother (and Maida Heatter)
(makes 8 large cookies)
9 oz. bittersweet chocolate
4 oz. (1 generous cup) pecans
1 stick unsalted butter
¾ tsp. vanilla extract
¼ tsp. almond extract
1/3 cup sugar
½ tsp. salt
1 cup flour, sifted
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- Line cookie sheets with aluminum foil, (shiny side up!).
- Cut chocolate into chunks.
- Toast pecans in the preheated oven, carefully watching to avoid burning, for around 10 minutes. Once cool enough to handle, break them into pieces, (not too small!).
- In mixer, beat butter until it is soft. Then, add the vanilla and almond extracts. When incorporated, add sugar and salt, and then finally the flour. When the dough comes together, remove from mixer.
- Add the nuts and chocolate. Stir to combine.
- Use 1/3 cup mounds (an ice cream scoop works nicely) for each cookie. Shape them into balls with cold wet hands. It may seem like there is not enough dough to incorporate all of the nuts and chocolate needed. But there is. Have faith. Just keep in mind that these cookies are chunk heavy and dough light.
- Bake 16 – 18 minutes until they have a pale, golden color.
- Remove from the oven, let stand one minute. Cool on rack.