Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
In my mid twenties, from 2003 to 2009, I lived in Kuwait at the height of the U.S. military operations. It was an amazing opportunity, both personally and professionally, and opened my eyes to the world in ways that I had never contemplated. Newly divorced and eager to have an adventure, I took the leap, accepting a contracting job with the U.S. Army. Nevertheless, it was scary to venture off alone into the epicenter of a United States-Middle East conflict. Like so many Americans, I had preconceived ideas about the culture. Some proved to be true, others not so true. In my recently published book Life In My Hands, Healing Myself, Healing Others, I provide more details about my life in Kuwait City working for the military. For now, here are the three biggest life lessons I learned from living in the Middle East:
Growth begins where your comfort zone ends. Leaving a safe place is scary, but don’t underestimate the growth you will experience from jumping into something new. Being in a foreign country, immersing yourself in a culture so different from your own, can’t help but lead to change and growth.
Simple daily interactions – enjoying the cuisine, having conversations with locals, driving through different neighborhoods, and taking in entertainment – can expand your horizons. Appreciating the culture – fashions, customs, language – while falling into the local rhythms of life can provide a priceless education.
Shops open and close at different times, traffic patterns follow the local customs, and, as a result, new surroundings create personal rituals in order to experience and take full advantage of what the city has to offer. I remember rearranging my activities during Ramadan. Fewer shops were open and those that were had less staff. The regular hustle and bustle of the city was reduced. This forced me to stop and enjoy the downtime and live slower. Toward the end of the month, I was invited to take part in a breaking fast feast that reminded me of gathering with my own family at Thanksgiving.
As people were peacefully going through life, they were willing to answer my questions. Many of the ideas and fears that I started out turned out not to represent my experience of living in the Middle East. I would have never have known that had I not pushed through my discomfort and dared to take on this adventure.
Exposure to new things forces us to move outside of our known truths.Growth only happens when we have the courage to stand in the unknown zone for a while and figure out that we are okay, even if we don’t understand the system or the way things happen – yet.
Being non-judgmental leads to a richer life. There are differences in cultures, and that isn’t good or bad, it just is. We aren’t meant to be all the same, but we are meant to be equal. Diversity is everywhere; it’s what makes the world a high definition color instead of black and white. I forced myself to be neutral as much as possible and withhold my interpretation of certain things (that interpretation was my biased framing to begin with). Keeping an open mind allowed me to have a wonderful experience. We’re all different and that’s okay. It’s possible to coexist peacefully, respect local customs, and still be who we are, without trying to force everyone and everything to fit into one cultural framework.
I began to realize that my judgment was often fueled by fear. Once I realized that, it became easier to be less judgmental of the foreign world I was living in. As a result, I was able to make real connections with people who had much different upbringings and life experiences than I had.
Ultimately I discovered that even with all our difference, we are all humans and want the same things. We all experience love, anger, sadness and fear regardless of what culture we are born into. Everyone is seeking these connections and love in their lives. I learned to connect with people on that level and made amazing life long friendships with people from all over the planet.
All we really have are the connections we make with others. Even those that we will never see again, leave their mark. Sometimes their leaving created heartbreak. We survive and learn to move on and appreciate the memories. We carry what we learn from them with us.
The money and many of the material things I collected from my time in the Middle East are long gone. What’s left are my priceless friendships and memories that will be with me forever. The life changing relationships, professional and personal, helped to develop my outlook on life, to learn compassion and understanding, and see that goodness in humanity is alive and well, especially in the Middle East. The people I connected with in all the foreign countries where I’ve lived have been my university; my priceless educational life experience.
Photo of Kuwait City landscape from a speed boat from Bigstock.
Even as a teen growing up in a small town in Maine, Darcy Hotchkiss visualized herself a world traveler. But she would take many detours before she realized those dreams. Along the way, she kept a journal to document her amazing journey from high school dropout and a single mom, to a soldier in the U.S. Army and a government contractor in Kuwait and Iraq. Working for NATO in The Netherlands, she sustained a serious injury which brought on a year of physical pain and emotional turmoil. When she finally found a way to heal through alternative medicine, she was inspired to become a healer herself. “I began feeling a nudge a couple of years ago to write down my experiences, trying to make sense of things with the idea that maybe there were women that have experienced similar struggles with life, love, parental roles, understanding their path, and healing,” says Darcy. “I’ve come to a deeper level of appreciation for who I am and the different way of managing my life; it doesn’t work for everyone but it works for me.” She hopes that her book, Life in My Hands – Healing Myself, Healing Others (WAT-AGE Publishing), will resonate with readers no matter where they are in their own odysseys.
Where Darcy now finds herself is all the more remarkable considering where she started out. She learned that she was pregnant shortly after attending her junior prom and was forced to drop out of school. “In my eighth month of pregnancy, I stood behind a cash register at the local grocery store, working as many hours as possible, trying to save money while I still had the ability to work,” Darcy writes. Studying to complete her high school degree, she was terrified with the thought that she was going to be responsible for the life of another human being. She and the baby’s father were soon married, a marriage that lasted for three years. “My husband and I had completely different goals about what our lives would be, certainly a challenge to our relationship,” she writes. “I wanted a career, and to travel and see the world, while he wanted to stay on the farm, raise children, and be the softball coach and team dad.”
After the divorce, Darcy was working multiple jobs, taking college courses, and raising her daughter. “There were nights when I barely got four to five hours of sleep after I got Jordan ready for bed, finished homework, and had to be at my first job again by 6:30 a.m.,” she says. “I never had enough money to cover everything. It seemed like I just couldn’t get ahead unless I did something drastic.”
Darcy and Jordan
She knew that she wanted more for herself and for her daughter. But how would she accomplish that? With few options available, she made the difficult decision to enlist. That meant leaving her daughter in the care of her ex-husband. “I felt massively judged in the beginning for my approach to mothering,” Darcy says. “But my priority was the best interests of my daughter. At that time, her father was a better parent hands down, and I think it’s important to admit that as a woman, especially today. Gender roles and perceptions are being overridden all the time and there are many examples of the roles woman are playing now in the media, movies, and even in the military.”
Darcy soon discovered that life as a solider was, in many ways, easier than trying to keep things together as a single mom. “Everything was provided – food, clothes, lodging and direction,” she says. “I got more sleep than I did as a single mother. It was crazy! I was able to focus on my professional endeavors without wondering if I could scrape some spare change together for a hamburger at McDonalds.”
Make no mistake, though. Basic training was tough. In the book Darcy describes the grueling drills, including one that involved being confined in a chamber filled with tear gas. (Think of that scene in An Officer and a Gentleman.) While other recruits were panicking, Darcy, who had visualized the exercise many times in her mind, was calm and methodical, getting through the exercise with time to spare. That was the first time she realized the power of visualization, something that she would use many times in the future.
While in the Army, Darcy met and married another soldier. Since he had a higher rank and would often be deployed, Darcy made the decision to leave the Army. She had been working on college credits and had enough training in communications that she could land a job paying her three times what she was making in the Army. Still, because of frequent separations, the marriage didn’t last. Dealing with the trauma of facing a second divorce, Darcy began to have vivid dreams. “Dreams of traveling, working and living in the Middle East were starting to come through,” she writes. Those dreams would soon become reality when she accepted a position supporting the Army Information Technology operations as an information systems security officer on Camp Doha, Kuwait.
Darcy arrived in Kuwait a year after President George W. Bush’s “shock and awe” campaign which brought down Iraq’s president, Saddam Hussein. While Kuwait was relatively safe, there were still challenges. Unlike some ex-pats, Darcy was open to learning about the people there and the culture. “I think I wanted to believe there was good in the world and the way for me to come to that was to immerse myself in another culture, befriend locals, and see what it was all about,” she says. “I met so many different types of people in the Middle East, some real characters. They made my time there great. There is so much diversity in this world. I would be hesitant to make gross generalizations on any group of people after my experiences.”
As an independent woman, Darcy often had to confront how women were treated in the Middle East. She became friends with one man named Mohammad who worked at the airport. Even though they spent some pleasant times together, she kept in mind a warning from his sister: “My brother is always angry and you should be careful with him.” When he became overbearing and controlling, Darcy made excuses for not being able to meet him. Fortunately, she was able to end the relationship on a friendly note and when Jordan visited Kuwait, Mohammed ushered her safely through the airport. Darcy made friends with another man, Waleed, but had to cut it off when he began to talk about marriage.
Darcy was certainly living her dream to travel. After celebrating the New Year in Lebanon, she took another job in Iraq, a country that was much more dangerous than Kuwait. “My assignment was working within the U.S. Embassy annex supporting the communications backbone for Multi-National Forces Iraq (MNF-I) in the area known as the International Zone,” she writes. She describes a trip in a Black Hawk helicopter to Camp Victory in Baghdad. “Initially, I thought the pilot was giving us a guided tour of Baghdad, but really he was just trying to avoid random gunfire from some of the rooftops and keep us from getting shot down through a rough patch of the city,” she writes. Peering down, rather than seeing gunfire, she witnessed “only a beautiful afternoon with young Iraqi children playing soccer in a small patch of a lush grassy field.” At the base, Darcy had the opportunity to tour Saddam Hussein’s Al-Faw Palace. Staring at crystal chandeliers and marble work, Darcy says “I couldn’t prevent my mouth from falling open with awe.” Driving around, a solider also pointed out the small building where the former Iraqi dictator was being held.
For Darcy, there was a bonus for her stay in Iraq. In Lebanon, she had met and fell in love with Majed, who would also be working in Iraq. The two would spend one glorious holiday together in Jordan before the romance came to a tragic end, sending Darcy into a tailspin.
She retreated back to the U.S., giving herself time to grieve. She returned to Kuwait for a short time, but soon found herself accepting a position with NATO in The Hague. Her initial excitement about the assignment didn’t last. She found the city cold, damp, and isolating. Playing netball (a Dutch version of basketball without the dribbling), she sprained her ankle. Shortly after that, she developed several health problems. “I had worked so hard to get to this point in my career,” she writes. “For what? Was this all that could be expected? Loneliness, sickness, and depression? It was a difficult pill for me to swallow.”
One evening she forced herself to socialize, accepting an invitation to a birthday party. She sustained a serious fall down a flight of stairs, injuring her lower back, pelvis, and shoulder. “If you have ever been in chronic pain, you understand that it goes beyond dealing with the physical pain,” she writes. “There’s a psychological effect as well.”
After trying in vain to get treated in The Hague, a friend took her to Paris. While the doctors there were able to diagnose her injuries, a cortisone shot in her spine just made matters worse. One of the doctors suggested she try alternative forms of medicine to relieve her pain. Thus began her search for help which finally led her to Zoran Hochstatter in London, the founder of a healing modality called PureBioenergy Therapy. Darcy not only scheduled a healing session with Hochstatter, but also signed up for his training class. Zoran sported a white beard and long, white, shoulder-length hair. “He looked like a healer, but was wearing normal clothes – a T-shirt and blue jeans.” When he approached her, Darcy rattled off her long list of ailments. After saying, “Is that it?” he turned on some classic rock and went to work. Darcy recalls swaying and rocking as he waved his hands around her. “The movement was involuntary, out of my control,” she writes. When it was over, Darcy felt peaceful and calm. After a second day of therapy, she woke up realizing that for the first time she had slept a full eight hours; there was no pain in her back or her hip. Attending Zoran’s training session, she was energized with the possibility of helping others heal.
“Upon returning to Holland, it was hard to conceal my excitement about how good I was feeling,” she writes. “For the first time in almost a year I was walking upright, without a limp.” Others noticed and Darcy began to use what she had learned from Zoran. “Initially, my intent was to help others heal, but I eventually understood that each person I helped was also helping me,” she writes. “By allowing me to co-create wellness and health within others, the process took me outside of myself. It got me out of my own head by focusing on being of service to someone in need.”
Returning to the U.S., Darcy settled in Washington, D.C. and took a job at the Pentagon. Her healing work continues. She’s particularly proud about helping those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “These days I don’t get many skeptics in my healing space, but in the past I learned quickly that some people just don’t resonate with what I’m doing,” Darcy says. “I’m okay with that. I’m actually a skeptic and come from a computer engineering background, so I understand that what I’m doing goes against traditional and convention thinking. But, I never feel compelled to explain or convince anyone of what I’m doing. We are all responsible for our own health and we all can choose how to get there. Belief is a big part of a person’s healing process.”
Darcy and Jordan continue to enjoy a close relationship. “I think it was confusing and hard for my daughter in the beginning, but as she got older she understood more about why I made the choices I did and it makes sense to her,” she says. “She’s 21 years old now and always says she got the best of worlds, a stable home and an opportunity to see the world and have great experiences that otherwise would not have been possible.”
Writing Life in My Hands gave Darcy the opportunity to reflect on her journey. “I made mistakes along the way, but I learned from those mistakes and became more savvy, focused, and confident in the process,” she says. “Living with regrets about things you didn’t do or chances you didn’t take, especially out of fear of failure, are some of the most painful to live with. I have no regrets in my life. I’ve lived fully and still have many more exciting times ahead.”
Tricia Driscoll is a former Army Intelligence Officer who now runs and designs Knotty Origami, a jewelry and décor business grounded in knotting, folding and braiding arts. Her work incorporates her Korean heritage as well as the skills she learned in the military. Tricia donates her time and supplies to provide art therapy workshops, as well as five percent of all of her profits to The 296 Project, a local charity that helps veterans and their families, particularly those suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Her work has evolved to incorporate decorative knotting and braiding, in addition to the many practical knots she used in the Army. Her eight year-old daughter, Caelyn, designs her very own knotted collection. Tricia’s designs can be found in stores and galleries in Northern Virginia and Northern Ireland, and online at Knotty Origami, LLC ™
Can you point to one event that triggered your interest in your career?
Yes. Even though I had grown up seeing the imagery of knots all around me in Korea, they always seemed very mystical. When I attended Air Assault School at Fort Campbell, Kentucky as a young Lieutenant in the U.S. Army in 1999, I tied my first tactical knot: a Swiss Seat Rappel Harness. That knot, which we had to do in 30 seconds without looking in order to pass on to the next phase, was the difference between living and dying when we rappelled down towers and out of the helicopter. I was fascinated by the simplicity and the functionality of that knot, and all others that followed. I began making simple paracord bracelets to store the cording neatly, and my interest evolved into other more decorative forms of the knotting craft over years. For the origami that I do each holiday season, I recall my first teacher as a child in Seoul, explaining stories of her escape from North Korea when she was young. Every time I fold a piece of paper, I think of her stories still.
What about this career choice did you find most appealing?
What I love most about the knotting and folding arts is that they are technical and beautiful. The knotting and origami art forms begin with a single piece of rope or cord, or a single plane of paper. From those simplest of beginnings, the pieces are creased, folded, looped, or weaved into works of incredible complexity. Knotted and folded pieces are metaphors for human potential. When we see how sophisticated a piece can become, even though it is singular at the core, it is a reminder of how much we can achieve. We are already multi-faceted and poly-dimensional. Just imagine what that implies for the possibilities of what we can do.
Additionally, the knotting and folding arts are highly practical in ways many people don’t often consider. Many knots don’t just hold symbolic or cultural meanings, they can save your life. Origami techniques have given way to launches of massive folded telescopes into outer space, and the creation of stints that unfold intravenously. I am in love with the idea of Form And Function which is why I have a collection by the same name. In addition to the many purely decorative knots and folds we make, the Form And Function pieces can be cut in emergency situations to yield usable paracord.
What steps did you take to begin your education or training?
The education and training to learn new Knots and Folds has been a lifelong passion. I am an experiential learner, so I spend my free time tinkering. I tend to invest in books, and occasionally review videos, but most of my learning is simply in the DOING while working through mistakes.
I spent several years earning advanced degrees in Management and Business Management, which I feel helped when I decided to launch my business in 2013. There was a baseline understanding of what I would need to set in place. I was thankful that I found a passion that I could build a business around so that I could start using the degrees that I was still paying off.
But, I feel that the one learning experience that has been priceless and integral to hitting the ground running was my three years spent as a blogger. When I launched a blog in 2011, I had no prior knowledge of website development, social media leveraging, promotion, networking, writing for an audience, content creation, or photography basics. Jumping into the blogging world with open eyes and receptive mind, gave me the courage to launch out on my own to build my own website, photography, and customer base. I view that time as a sort of internship.
Along the way, were people encouraging or discouraging?
I feel that people were overwhelmingly encouraging and excited to see me start something new. That said, there are so many jewelry businesses in the game that I don’t think anyone would have been disappointed or shocked if I threw in the towel in the earliest stages of business development, either. In the beginning, there is so much to build with little return. I believed that the business could grow, and I was determined to keep at it with a long-term vision. I am thankful for the people who supported the concept from the very first day.
Did you ever doubt your decision and attempt a career change?
I have never doubted my decision to start Knotty Origami. I did change my career in order to pursue Knotty Origami. I spent nine and a half years serving in the U.S. Army as a Military Intelligence Officer. I then worked as a Law Enforcement Intelligence Analyst for a few years before transitioning out of the government work force. I loved my work, but the hours were exceptionally long and I had two very small children. When my husband was transferred, I made the hardest decision of my life to resign. Wow, that was difficult. But, it was the very best decision for me, and my young family, at the time. I spent about six months solely focused on our move and my family, and then branched into blogging about local community and child-centered events. After a few years, I started Knotty Origami and have been running and designing for it ever since.
When did your career reach a tipping point?
In my first career choice as an Army Officer, my husband and I wanted to start a family. He and I were rarely able to see each other because of our deployments and temporary duties. Dual military couples start families every day and do a great job balancing the needs of the Army and their families. But, I thought it was best for us if I looked for civilian work that would give a more stable schedule.
As a civilian analyst, my kids were very young. The work was fulfilling and stimulating, but the hours were very long. I worked in an environment where the work had to be done at the office. There was not a lot of flexibility to bring work home. I did what I could, but when my husband received transfer orders, the timing seemed right for me to resign, with the option of coming back down the road.
With Knotty Origami, I found myself starting to feel overwhelmed with unofficial orders to make origami or knotted items for people. I was spending my own money and gifting the items people asked for. I did it with pure joy that people appreciated my work. The things I was blogging about, people wanted. The things I was making for myself and wearing, people wanted. And, then the lightbulb moment happened that I should start Knotty Origami. Everything came together: my military background, the arts of our cultural backgrounds (my husband is Irish-American and I am half-Korean), my love for the arts, blogging, the desire to work on my own time, and still contribute to the family’s financial security. Knotty Origami was the answer.
I have never looked back. Every agonizing decision about switching career paths was worth the agony. Each experience has solidified that I am on the path that is right for me, and my family.
Can you describe a challenge you had to overcome?
I believe the first two years of working on building opportunities and networks was the hardest time. It took patience to continue through what felt like stagnation, or a lack of initial sales. But, the persistence paid off. Knotty Origami is still growing, with much growing to do, but I am busy every day working on designs, new orders, or preparing for an event. I work with an intern now, and have had to start considering how I will bring on more workers to help keep up with demand. Knotty Origami is no longer strictly e-commerce, but can now be found in several Northern Virginia stores, and even one in Northern Ireland. We’re doing in-home trunk shows, markets and instructional workshops, as well.
The ups and downs of the first couple of years were essential to learning what my place was in the market, and what my business model needed to look like. I never considered quitting, but I can understand why some might consider quitting in the earliest stages, where you are the only one who can see where you and your business are headed, even though the numbers just aren’t there yet.
What single skill has proven to be most useful?
I don’t know if it’s a skill, but I would say that being willing to “Fail Up” is the attribute that has allowed me to step into this career without fear. What I mean by that, is that there is a lot of learning through mistakes along the way. Taking those micro-failures, and viewing them as “points of improvement” for your process, your model, or yourself, is what will propel you forward without becoming paralyzed by setbacks.
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
I am most proud that I have controlled my career path at every step and that my business can now help make a difference in the community. I am doing what I love, what I am meant to do, and I am able to do good along with it. We donate five percent of our profits each year to a local non-profit. The first year, we sponsored Voz De Ninos, a Texas Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) program for children in foster care. We were only able to give a small amount that year. But, we received a note from the non-profit that told us where the money would go to help a child who had aged out of the system to help get them started on their own. It was a reminder that every bit that a business can help generate helps. The following year, we were able to donate more to Boston Children’s Hospital (from sales of our Awareness Products) and the Transitional Housing BARN, a non-profit that helps house and provide for abused women and families. And, this year, we are on track to donate even more to The 296 Project, a non-profit that provides art therapy workshops and resources to veterans and their families. Many of the people helped by The 296 Project have suffered Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I’ve hosted a free workshop for them and plan to do more. The arts are a fabulous way to help someone’s well-being, and I am thrilled to be a part of that. I am proud of how far Knotty Origami has come, and have great hopes for its future, but I truly hope that we’ll always be able to help impact the community.
Any advice for others entering your profession?
Fail Upward With Vigor. Failure has two sides: the side that feels horrible, and the side full of lessons. The “Lesson Side” is the one that you should pay attention to. You’ll improve every time, and you and your business will be better off because of it.