Amazingwomenrock.com & I
By Susan Macaulay
The seeds of amazingwomenrock.com were sown one spring afternoon in 1993, when my husband Bob stepped off the shuttle bus that brought him home from work.
It was a typical May day in Abu Dhabi – sweltering. I was off to the gym, striding purposefully across the parking lot where the bus had stopped to disgorge its tired and sweaty load.
When I waved, one of Bob’s colleagues shouted back jokingly: “You women have it so easy – in my next life I’m gonna’ come back as an expat wife.” Ouch! Salt in the wound. The expat life, at least for THIS expat wife, wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
Yes, I had moved (willingly), from my native Canada to the United Arab Emirates, excited at the prospect of adventures abroad. And yes, life was relatively carefree, but I often felt out of place in my new “home.”
The internet was still in its infancy, sites such as expatwoman.com and abudhabiwoman.com were non-existent, and there were few local resources available for women such as myself.
When I packed my suitcase for the UAE, I had left my career behind. Or so it seemed. I went for endless interviews with countless organisations, all for naught. I longed for meaningful work into which I could sink my teeth.
A tale of two books
Inspired by the quip in the parking lot, I decided to write a book - about expat women and how they contribute to their adopted communities.
That was in 1994. The book remains unwritten to this day.
Had I known Jo Parfitt then, the project might have gotten off the ground. Jo is a prolific author, founder of several websites (such as thebookcooks.com), and a brilliant keynote speaker. But I didn’t know Jo then...
I was fortunate to ghost write another book, Rags to Riches, the autobiography of UAE businessman Mohammed Abduljalil Al Fahim. It was published in 1995, and has since been translated into six languages.
Buoyed by that experience, I made a tentative start on my own book project in 1996, when I conducted two interviews with author Gertrude Dyck (The Oasis: Al Ain memoirs of 'Doctora Latifa), a remarkable woman who came to the UAE on a mission in the early 1960s.
(Happily, I reconnected with Gertrude in June 2008, as AWR was about to launch. She generously agreed, 12 years on, to let me publish a serialised version of those interviews.)
Gertrude's interviews were as far as I got until a decade later, when I resurrected the project in the form of a website. By that time, I had been to China, left my husband and transformed myself into a new me...
Challenge & change
In November 2003, I attended an International Business Women’s Group dinner, which turned out to be the beginning of the end of the life I had known for 20 years. (At left is a pic of me circa 1998)
Representatives of Gulf for Good, a local organization that raises money for charity, made a presentation on their upcoming adventure challenges. On the spur of the moment, I signed up for a six-day, 120-kilometer trek on the Great Wall of China, which I had long wanted to visit.
The arduous trek would take place mostly on the “wild” sections of the Great Wall, so “challengers” had to be fit and healthy. I had been quite sporty in my youth (skied competitively, was a good swimmer), and I enjoyed hiking, cycling and squash. But other than irregular workouts at the gym, I wasn’t nearly as active as I had once been. That was about to change.
To shape up, I started walking. Compulsively. I arose daily at around 5 a.m. (to beat the heat) and shuffled (at least initially), along the “corniche,” Abu Dhabi’s seaside boardwalk.
As the weeks went by, my half hour strolls lengthened and quickened until I was “wogging” (half walking, half jogging), for 90 minutes each morning. Several times a week I ran up and down the stairs of our 12-storey apartment building, in anticipation of the endless steps on The Wall.
I began to eat differently – mostly vegetarian and much less than before. Women tend to gain weight during menopause, but I lost it (the weight AND my mind at times!). Over the course of the next year, I dropped 20 pounds (about 9 kilos), and become “petite,” more muscular and lean.
As my body changed, so did I. I began to think, feel, and dress in new ways. I stopped wearing big, baggy conservative clothes in shades of black, blue and beige. Instead, I shimmied into fitted tops and tight jeans. I began wearing bling and sayiing 'dahhhling.' Pink, a colour I had eschewed my entire life, became my trademark hue. (The pic in pink above was taken in 2007)
Not all, however, was as rosy as my rejuvenated wardrobe. My hormones wrought physical and psychological havoc. As many women do, I suffered the expected (and unwelcome!) hot flashes and mood swings.
I was an emotional powder keg a lot of the time. I cried at the drop of a hat, publicly – in banks, travel agencies, supermarkets – as well as privately – wherever I happened to be at the time. It wasn’t unusual for me to find myself curled up in a ball on the floor of the kitchen, bedroom or living room, sobbing uncontrollably, for no apparent reason. Uncharacteristically, I also start to pray. A lot. For deliverance.
I was in a state of high anxiety for a solid year. One friend, a trained psychotherapist, suggested antidepressants, she was that worried about me. Ah, the joys of menopause. Or divorce. Or both.
(It turns out my experience isn't unique. For a blow-by-blow, real-life, up-close-and-personal account of what transformation can be like read Elizabeth Gilbert's fabulous book Eat, Pray, Love. Absolutely brilliant. I was blown away to find that a woman 20 years my junior, on the other side of the world, had captured the essence of MY life by telling HER story. It's a great comfort, and joy, to know one is not alone.)
Bob, my husband and best friend for two decades, suddenly became someone distant who seemed either unwilling or unable to meet my needs. Who could blame him? It must have been confusing to wake up one morning and find a virtual stranger where your wife used to be.
Not surprisingly, our 20-year partnership fell apart at the seams. I was devastated. He seemed in denial. We both tried our best, in our own ways, but our best wasn’t good enough to hold the marriage together.
Up against the Wall
Amidst the turmoil of 2004 there were many gifts. Among them, the trip to the Great Wall was remarkable. I rose to the challenge (as did everyone in the group), made new friends and learned some wonderful life lessons. Raising money for charity through group adventure travel was an exciting, rewarding, life-changing experience for me.
The Wall itself was fantastic – an architectural marvel that runs for more than 6,000 kilometers atop razor-backed mountains in the Chinese countryside. It's wild, rugged, and astonishing in every way.
As I look back, I see the Wall as a metaphor for the process I was going through. In some places it was crumbling, as I felt my life was then, in others it had been rebuilt, as I hoped my future would be. Perhaps most important, it was breathtakingly beautiful in all its aspects, just as life is, with both its joys and sorrows.
I moved from Abu Dhabi to Dubai in January 2005, and started to put myself, and my life, back together. I felt at once powerful and free, yet vulnerable and afraid (still do). What had I done? Was this all a terrible mistake?
I’m coming to learn there’s no point looking back. The only way forward is…well…forward! I’ve also learned that new lessons take practice and time, maybe even a lifetime, to implement. That which sounds easy in theory can sometimes be extraordinarily difficult to execute. Especially changing oneself and one’s relationships with others.
My quest for learning led me to read all kinds of inspirational books. Two in particular captured my imagination: Women of Courage and Women of Spirit, both by Katherine Martin, a talented writer and editor who set out, in the early 1990s, to explore the meaning of courage in women’s lives. (Sadly, Martin died in January 2006 after her own courageous battle of cancer.)
The books were exactly what I had in mind when I interviewed Gertrude Dyck in 1996. Based on personal interviews conducted by Martin herself, they are collections of stories about women who have made a difference.
Unbeknownst to each other, Martin and I had similar ideas, at about the same time, on opposite sides of the globe. Katherine acted on hers; I let mine languish on the back burner. I read her books hoping that some of the courage and spirit of the women she interviewed would “rub off on me.” It did. I was inspired to resurrect my idea in the form of a website. And this time, I felt compelled to make it happen.
Which brings me to March 2006….
Six of us sit, slightly squeezed, in my tiny two-bedroom townhouse in Dubai. We’re brainstorming ideas for the website.
“You have to start by writing your own story. You can’t expect people to do what you haven’t done yourself,” Lizzie is gently emphatic. The LAST thing I’m in the mood for is writing my own story, which feels distinctly uninspiring.
Life is not unfolding at all according to plan. Or at least not according to any plan I had in mind. No sir. This is definitely the UN-plan: fifty years old, recently separated, self-employed, “alone” in a new city, menopausal and trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to “embrace uncertainty.” Business is tough. Money, men and moral support are all in short supply. I feel lonely, lost and overwhelmed.
Nope. This wasn’t my plan at all.
Along with the un-plan, I’ve got a big dream – to launch a website to celebrate, motivate and inspire women. Developers are already working on the site, the core of which I visualise as a database of stories of women from around the world.
As the site starts to take shape, I begin to feel afraid. Terrified actually. Where will the stories come from? How will people learn about the site? Will anyone visit? And if they do, will they send a message , post a tribute or share a story? Will I be able to afford to keep it going?
Lots of questions. Few answers.
But I dream on . And I seek the answers (to these and other questions), by challenging myself physically.
In November 2005, I hiked up Mt Kinabalu (at 4,095 meters, the highest mountain in southeast Asia), with Elaine Kelly, whom I’d met on The Great Wall of China challenge, and her friend Lisa Rosen, with whom I also quickly developed a friendship.
It was grueling going up, even worse coming down. But the night sky as we headed toward the summit at 2 a.m. was one of the most awe-inspiring sights I have yet to experience. It occurred to me then that sometimes, in order to fully appreciate the awesome beauty of the stars, you must immerse yourself in total darkness. (I remind myself of that whenever things seem a little black.) The view just down from the summit was equally awesome.
In December 2005, at age 49, I participated in my first sprint triathlon – half the distance of an Olympic event, but a triathlon nonetheless. Three months later, I celebrated my 50th birthday with a second triathlon, and took first in my class. (So what if there were only two competitors in the over-50 females category?)
(By the way, congratulations and thanks to Julie Hall, Ironman triathlete, personal trainer and driving force behind the Dubai Tri Club. Julie expertly and enthusiastically organises most of the triathlon events that take place in Dubai.)
In May 2006, I tackled Mt Toubkal , the highest mountain in Northern Africa, with my friend Elaine (again!), and several of her co-workers. We had a grand time trekking through Morocco's Atlas Mountains for five days before finally making our way up the 'piece de resistance.' I fell ill with fever and had to be carried by donkey to the base of the mountain, but after a night’s rest I made it to the top, with the rest of the group, under my own steam. It was exhilarating.
While I trained for triathlon, conquered mountains, and ran my business , the website floundered badly. The developers I chose, and the technology they used, were simply not good enough. After 18 months, the fledgling site failed before it even got online. In November 2006, I walked away from the investment I had made with nothing to show for it. It would take another six months to save enough money to start again.
The next chapter
By coincidence, or synchronicity (depending on how you see it), I met a new website consultant, in June 2007, and we started over from scratch. This supplier promised to have the site up and running in 59 days. A year later, in June 2008, we’re ready to launch. Almost.
How did 59 days stretch into 365? Contract negotiations, developer issues (again... sigh), unexpected delays due to Vietnamese new year (but vsmarttech did a great job in the end!), functionality lost in host transfers, recoding, testing, debugging, testing, debugging, testing, debugging, adding bits of new functionality, testing, debugging and tweaking, tweaking, tweaking.
The site will never be finished of course. One of the myriad things I’ve learned over the last three years is that websites are never-ending works in progress - kinda' like we are.
Happily, the still-under-construction first version of amazingwomenrock.com is finally here, online, a place for women around the world to celebrate, motivate and inspire each other.
Now that I’ve finally built it, I hope they will come.