Learning to Let Go: Love & Egypt
The light. The way it danced across the columns. Shadows cast from a setting sun. An escape from the desert heat. The ruins of Karnak. The ancient banks of the Nile. Luxor, Egypt. It was beautiful, and we were happy. It was a breath of fresh air after a tidal wave of change. Relentless, tireless change.
They say people come into your life for a reason, a season, or a lifetime. You learn from each other, lean into one another. Sometimes you even decide to do life together. And everything is magical. Until it isn't. And things get hard.
I don't usually open up about my personal life, and lately I've started to ask myself why. So far, I haven't come up with a good answer. If anything, I've decided there is value in sharing the good with the bad. So, here goes. This past year has been one of both immense growth and struggle. Fears and failures. It has been a year that forced me to clearly define what I crave most from this one, beautiful life. And more importantly, it has challenged me to decide all that I am willing to sacrifice for the freedom to pursue it.
A year and a half ago, Justin and I got engaged. It has been five months since we broke it off. We first met in Hawaii nine years ago, but only for a moment. A moment long enough to inspire a hand-written letter, and then another, and then a hand-made leather journal – mailed back and forth over the space of three years. We never saw each other again, even though he felt like a good friend. Until five years ago, when I moved to Italy. He was relocated to Bahrain, and for the first time we were living in nearly the same time zone. So, he proposed our first date in Italy. Five visits later, I went to see him in Bahrain. And so our story went, until it grew nine countries wide and countless adventures deep. We both felt fortunate, having found each other against all odds. We both believed we were meant to be. So when Justin proposed to me in my favorite place (Yosemite) on New Years Eve, I said yes.
The months following our engagement were a whirlwind. Aside from a Facebook post, we never really found the time to announce or even celebrate our engagement. Between work and the madness of moving, it wasn't long before we were both seated on a plane to Paris, flying head first into the unknown. Egypt was to be my temporary home, and Justin's permanent home for the next two years. We agreed I would remain stateside to continue building my career, and so I chose Seattle for its mountains, ocean and international airport. For the next six weeks, Justin and I lived together on the outskirts of Cairo.
Egypt is unlike any place I’ve ever lived. The people, the landscape, the constant chaos. Living there was a wild kind of experiment, and I wanted to embrace it. The culture, the diversity; the history and mystery of it all. But, living in Egypt and visiting Egypt are two very different things.
Living in Egypt, you get used to cars honking at you everywhere you go. You get used to men gawking at you on the street, muttering things as you walk by. You learn to ignore the occasional looks of disapproval when you show your hair. Your shoulders. Your knees. The feral dogs, the scrounging kittens, the dead animals. The trash. The never-ending traffic, the ever-present noise. The absence of green space. You aren't surprised when the electricity goes out for hours, or when the water shuts off without warning. You get used to breathing in diesel fuel... and the dull yet constant burning sensation in the back of your throat, deep in your lungs.
In Cairo, wild takes on new meaning. Wild becomes all of the things you cannot explain or understand or categorize. Wild becomes your every day; a vibrant cocktail of chaotic unfamiliarity. A slow acceptance of a place you cannot change, where your only choice is to acclimate, or leave.
Maybe I could have tried harder. But the longer I stayed, the more claustrophobic I began to feel. I'm a person who loves to pack up the car and disappear into the mountains for weeks at a time. I can be pretty independent and often crave solitude. We didn't have a vehicle and even if we had, I wasn't allowed to drive. Since I wasn't living there full-time, I wasn't eligible for an Egyptian driver’s license. Because of Justin's position, I was restricted or 'strongly advised' against travel by train, bus, or any other kind of public transport. Instead, we were told to hire private drivers.
It didn't take long to learn that nearly all of the places I was excited to explore were completely off-limits. Terrorist groups were active both in Siwa and the Sinai, and it was deemed unsafe for embassy personal. I guess I could have ignored the rules. I did try to work around them. But one night at a dinner party, I was personally asked by one of Justin’s superiors to refrain. I didn't want to negatively impact Justin's job in any way, so I quit pushing. Over time, my excitement and curiosity were replaced by a creeping feeling of confinement. I spent my days editing and going through old photos, venturing outside to the gym or grocery store, and sometimes ordering an Uber downtown. I'm not big on shopping, or eating out, or most city-based activities. They're great every once in a while, but what I craved was the outdoors. Community. The open road. An escape from the monotony of our new reality.
After six weeks of living in Egypt, I flew back to the states. I had lost a few jobs while overseas, since I was unable to receive deliveries (mail in Egypt is impressively slow), and also the logistics of coordinating travel from Egypt had presented some challenges. So, we agreed that I would take three months to make the move to Washington, find an apartment, and focus on work before returning to Egypt for another six weeks. After which, we would adjust and plan to see each other more frequently. We agreed to stay in constant contact with Facetime, Skype, messaging, all the things. And for a while, it seemed to work.
In the weeks that followed, I slowly came back to life. My work came back to life, and my community expanded to the point where Seattle really started to feel like home. I was traveling and shooting whenever possible, doing my best to make the most of my time in the mountains. Time went by, and everything seemed fine. Until it didn't. Until the phone conversations became less meaningful, and our connection seemed less vibrant. We thought everything would mend itself once we finally saw each other again, and we agreed that three months was too long of an interim.
Around the time I was planning to return, Justin was scheduled for a conference on the East Coast. So, I flew to see him in Connecticut. We were happy to see each other, but something was different. Toward the end of our trip, Justin shared his decision to take on a new and potentially more dangerous military tour. It was and still is a decision I deeply respect. But, it was also devastating. Both before and after our engagement, we had talked extensively about Egypt being his last tour. About transitioning from military life. I had always believed that living apart would be temporary, not permanent. Justin expected the same, but in a different way. That was when he shared his decision to commit until retirement - another seven years. That was when he asked me to follow him to each new post. Seven more years in the Middle East and the East Coast. Seven more years of moving, re-settling and supporting my other half in progressively varying roles of diplomacy. Hosting, parties, receptions, formalities. A military life. A military wife.
It's been seven months since I first came face to face with this question. To stay, or to go. For four months, Justin and I talked. And talked and talked. I spent another six weeks in Egypt with him, and he came to Seattle to spend Christmas with me. And that was the last time we saw each other. It's been an emotional rollercoaster, and I've questioned my decision again and again, each time wondering if a better person would agree to give up her dreams in order to support the person she loves.
Maybe the answer to that question is yes. But, there were other reasons Justin and I decided to part ways. Any attempt to explain those reasons here would be an unfair oversimplification. What I can say is that happiness, for me, is the open road. It’s growing old in the mountains. It’s being in the wild spaces that make me feel alive. It's simple, but specific. Justin craves the undercurrent of urban living. He’s brilliant, social and charming; he both appreciates and attracts the finer things in life. We introduced each other to entirely different worlds, and loved each other for it. Maybe it is the thing that brought us together, and ultimately the thing that drove us apart.
Until now, I've been hesitant to share images and stories from our trips together; to relive the happy experiences and wonder what went wrong. Because in the end, we chose to let each other ago. With love, and with sadness. But also with a genuine desire to see one another succeed, and to find the happiness in life and love that we both seek. To cherish the moments and experiences we did share.
So, here's to love. To lost love, to new love. And, here's to love for this crazy ride we call life.