Regarding 2020

2020 has been awful, and you don’t need me to tell you why. If you’ve missed all of the death, disease, unemployment, racism, and general despair then I would ask where you have been. Hopelessness is alive and well.

Something I love about my fellow Americans, though, is the reason they give me for hope.

Right now, in America, there is a nurse who has worked through double shifts, tending to those ravaged by the virus. She has been at it since March. There is no end in sight, but she keeps going because the patients keep coming.

Right now, in America, there is a firefighter on the line out West. He’s far from home, but is fighting through sweat and ash to protect the homes of people he has never met.

Right now there is an American solider manning her post in a part of the world that no one in her family ever dreamed of visiting. She is ready to sacrifice her life, if needed, in a conflict that began before she was even born.

Right now, in America, there is a teacher working into the night to prepare lessons for kids who have seen their worlds turned upside down. His job has become more complicated this year, but he continues to do all that he can to give his students what they need.

Right now, in America, there is a grocery store worker with no health insurance who faces the risk of contracting COVID from uncaring customers every single day. She has to keep working to put food on her table, and on yours.

Right now, in America, there is a Black person who has dared to declare that his life matters. And right now there is a white person whose ears and eyes have been opened to the oppression his neighbors have faced for generations. The conversation is hard, but essential.

Right now, in America, there is a voter. This is the first time she has registered to vote. She waited in line for hours, and cast her ballot with a smile on her face, because she cares about what is happening in her community, and she is making her voice heard. There are millions more like her, and they make my heart swell with pride to the point of bursting.

These people give me hope because they continue to care about their neighbors. Regardless of how broken America may seem, there are still so many who work hard every day to make it better, in so many ways. They have our backs. We need to have theirs. We need to vote. We need to vote thoughtfully, prayerfully, humbly, and safely. This is how we begin to put the pieces back together.

Regarding Tsunamis, Hope, and Bird Feeders

The sun shone on the bright blue surface of the Indian Ocean as wind whipped through the open side of the tuk-tuk in which I sat, brushing the face of the toddler who slept on my lap but not waking her.  I had eaten a big seafood lunch and looked forward to an afternoon of lounging in a pool with K and the kids, and identifying tropical birds.  The moment was perfect, made so by the setting.  Southern Sri Lanka is full of lush green forests, growing alongside pristine lagoons and sandy beaches, with communities inhabited by friendly and hospitable people who cook some of the best food you’ll ever taste.  It’s paradise.  It’s also the site of one of the greatest tragedies that has taken place during my time on earth.  On the day after Christmas in 2004 the ground underneath the ocean lurched, giving birth to a tsunami that would quickly end the lives of nearly a quarter of a million people.  Thousands of the them lived, worked, and played in the community where we were spending our vacation.  Everyone we met had lost friends and family.  Our driver for the week was seven years old when the tsunami hit.  He lost his grandparents, and told me that since that day he has never set foot in the ocean, and never will.

They told us that the tsunami wasn’t a single giant wave.  It was actually two.  The first wave hit out of nowhere, inundating buildings, cars, people, knocking trains from tracks.  Then the water receded as quickly as it had come.  Those who were able pulled themselves up, and immediately went about trying to rescue those around them.  They rushed into buildings to look for loved ones.  They climbed into overturned cars to help those who were stuck.  They didn’t see the second wave, bigger than the first, until it was too late.  They tell us that more people were killed by the second wave than the first, because so many were trying to help others.

Visiting this community and hearing these stories got me thinking a lot about tsunamis, literal and figurative.  My own family suffered something of a double emotional tsunami a few weeks prior to this trip.  A dear cousin, just out of college, was killed in a violent homicide.  Less than a day later an uncle, full of energy and wisdom, and with a lot of living left to do, died in an accident.  In the course of a weekend two loved ones disappeared from this earth.  I felt overwhelmed, drowning in grief, confusion, and exhaustion.  My ears and heart were more sensitive than usual to the personal accounts of sudden loss that we heard from tsunami survivors.

As we packed our bags for the long-planned Sri Lanka vacation, looking forward to a peaceful time of rest and healing, the global spread of COVID-19 was accelerating.  By the time we returned to Saudi Arabia a week later (earlier than planned, which is a story in and of itself) the world had changed.  Fear had taken hold of the world, and words like “quarantine” and “social distancing” were in every email and on the tip of every tongue.  And then the death toll started to rise.  We, like you, locked ourselves in and have been watching as the world around us collapses under a flood of fevers, masks, and statistics.

I am powerless to do much except wait for the daily numbers to blink across the screen.  Here’s the number of families that are now without uncles, cousins, fathers, brothers.  Here are the number of people no longer collecting a paycheck, not knowing where the next mortgage payment or even meal will come from. Here’s the number of doctors, nurses, and even grocery store cashiers, who are sick because they kept serving others.  I feel hopeless in the midst of this inundation of bad news, and then get up and fill the bird feeders, because what else is there to do?

In times of despair, when the world feels hopeless, I often think of Jesus’ disciples, and how they must have felt before that first Easter.  Their friend and leader, the one for whom they had left everything, had been killed right in front of them.  The Kingdom he had promised had not materialized.  Their world had been swept away.  Hope was gone.

We met a guy in Sri Lanka whose story has stuck with me.  He was a young man when the tsunami hit.  He told me that when the first wave hit he was shocked, but when the second wave arrived he knew immediately what the purpose of his life going forward would be.  Despite the grief of having lost family members, he joined the relief effort within hours, doing odd jobs at the medical camps that popped up.  His responsibilities increased, and as he helped his community to rebuild he began advocating, along with many others, for the construction of an early-alert system that would notify citizens of the approach of a tsunami.  The system was built.  He started a community education center to help tourists and locals better understand the tragedy, and he spends time every week visiting schools to teach kids what to do if another disaster strikes.  He also takes those kids to the beach, teaching those who have been born into a community that was forever scarred by the disaster that the ocean is something they need not fear.  He is still working hard, 15 years later, to kindle hope in his community.

Hope is a precious and complicated thing.  When present it can heal broken hearts and lighten the darkness.  Without it the skies cloud over and the walls close in.  The world, so often bright and beautiful, becomes stark, harsh, and merciless.  Hope, the light at the end of the tunnel, the belief, no matter how small, that there are better things ahead, is as vital to human thriving as food and oxygen.

Where does hope come from?  So often I think it ought to come straight from God.  I want the heavens to part, and some reminder, perhaps in the shape of a glowing dove, to descend and tell me with authority that everything is going to be okay.  But that has never happened to me.  I often find myself in the company of the disciples, hiding in a room, fearing what comes next, shaking my fist at God for failing to deliver on His promises and letting it all fall apart.  He said that He takes care of the birds of the sky, so He’ll take care of us too.  I look around and see a lot of people who don’t look very taken care of right now.

And that’s when I come back to my bird-feeder.  The birds in my backyard are well fed.  They have not yet fallen from the sky.  God has kept His promise to them.  But they are well fed because my kids and I fill the feeders.  Often.  Every time we do it there is, within moments, the noise of  dozens of beating wings, a flock animated by the fulfilled hope of a full belly.  God has kept His promise to the birds, and He has used us to do it.  We have become the embodiment of hope to them.

I realize that hope tends to be carried by human hands, and spoken by human voices.  Hope lives when the birds keep coming back to the feeder and finding food.  Hope lives when my son finds a tomato on the plant he has been faithfully watering for months.  Hope lives when a runner steals a base in the bottom of the ninth.  Hope lives when a Broadway cast serenades a young fan on Zoom because she couldn’t get to the show.  Hope lives when zookeepers show up to feed the animals, not knowing when the zoo will open again.  Hope lives when pastors and priests continue to lead Easter services from their living rooms, tending to the flock while also protecting their physical health.  Hope really lives when a 104 year old man recovers from COVID-19 after also having had the Spanish Flu and fighting through World War II.  Hope is fanned into flame by all of the doctors, nurses, service workers, and diplomats who are getting out of bed every morning and spending every ounce of their strength to help others.  Hope is fueled by every word and action that whispers or shouts “Keep going. You can do it. Better days are ahead.”

I believe, and my Faith tradition teaches, that God has placed us on Earth to bring hope to one another.  There are certainly stories in the Bible where God does part the clouds and speak directly to people, but more often than not He counts on imperfect human beings to be His hands and feet.  Moses, a shepherd with a fear of public speaking, leads a nation to freedom.  Daniel, kidnapped from his country and family as a young man, becomes an advisor to Emperors.  The 12 Disciples, mostly uneducated working-class types, become the hearers and recorders of the teachings that form the foundations of Christianity.  And a small group of women, certainly considered second-class citizens in first century Palestine, were the first to be entrusted with the news that death had been defeated; that hope and Jesus were both alive and well.

So keep going.  We can do it.  Better days are ahead.  If you’re having trouble remembering that, give me a call.  I’ll show you my bird feeders and tomato trees.

 

When Home Arrives

Home, as I’ve written before, is an intricate thing, especially for those of us who move a lot.  It’s not a building or a place so much as it is a feeling connected with memories we make in those places and the people we share them with.  Home is an elusive but unmistakable feeling, and it’s one that is often missing when you move to a new place.

Sure, there’s the thrill of arrival, which is very real.  The big shiny buildings of Riyadh.  The abundant and delicious shawarma and hummus and million other Middle Eastern treats, not to mention the Pakistani and Indian food which is almost as good as it is in Pakistan and India.  The busy embassy full of smart colleagues and pulsing with interesting work.  The house, much bigger and more comfortable than that little Arlington apartment, and with a yard! It’s all new, and it’s fun.

But it doesn’t take long for the challenges to become apparent.  The climate is unfamiliar, and big dust storms happen. The culture is new to us, and we haven’t got it figured out yet.  Meeting people can be hard.  Work, while exciting, presents plenty of new challenges and frustrations. And a big house can be less than welcoming when it’s filled with hotel-style furniture and housewares.  There are moments, lots of them, where home feels very far away.  Nothing seems familiar.

But home arrives.  First it just comes in little trickles.  Not getting lost on our way to the embassy. Remembering which light switch in the house does what.  Memorizing the names of co-workers. Baby steps.

Then bigger waves of home start to arrive.  We realize we have a favorite grocery store, and that we can get there without switching on the gps.  We find ourselves visiting the same park every week, and our kid knows how to get there. We’ve got a schedule. People remember our names. Things start to feel more normal.

And then a tidal wave of home arrives. The shipment comes, and the boxes spill forth all of those precious totems of memory that we last saw in Mexico.  The dishes that we’ve eaten thousands of meals off of with so many friends.  The decor that speaks of the Caribbean, Mexico, the Northwoods, and South Asia. The pictures of people we love.  And the books…oh, the books.  Old friends like C.S. Lewis, Robert Fulghum, John Stott, Bill Watterson, Dr. Seuss, Ben Logan, Agatha Christie, and M.M. Kaye climb out of the boxes and onto the shelves, ready to engage in discussion.  We have started to feel more comfortable in Riyadh, and suddenly our house starts to look a little bit more like the way we feel.

We are four months in, and there are still plenty of moments in which we deeply miss people and places that we have loved. What I wouldn’t give for tacos al pastor, or a good bratwurst. But later today this house will be filled with friends, some old and some new, coming together to give thanks, break bread, and find taste of home in each other’s company.  The pumpkin pie is ready, and the carrot casserole is cooking.  Home has, once again, found us. And for that we are Thankful.

Thanks, Arlington!

Today is our last day in the DC region for a while. Tomorrow we hop a plane for a new place that we will come to call home. This chapter ends and the new one begins. It hasn’t been an easy year, exactly. Having babies and learning Arabic is a lot of work. We miss Mexico and the people we knew there, and we are a bit nervous to move to a region that is totally unfamiliar to us. But Virginia has given me many gifts this year, and as we prepare for the new chapter it feels appropriate to offer thanks for those gifts.
I am thankful for rainy days like today. Rain makes things green, and Virginia has so many lovely green spots. We lived in a desert in Mexico, and now we are bound for another desert. The desert is beautiful, but there’s something about the light green leaves of spring and the deep green of a full summer canopy alive with birds that feeds my Midwestern soul like nothing else.

I am thankful for the hall of flags at the State Department, and how every time I walk into that building I still feel a bit nervous. It’s good to remain humble when faced with the work that we do. And I’m thankful for the feeling of relief that washes over me when I swipe my card and the gates swing open for me. I do belong here, regardless of my insecurity.
I am thankful for how big the monuments on the mall are. They remind me of my smallness. But the stories of the people and movements they represent remind me of the part we all have to play in the ongoing work of America.

I am thankful for the tourists who clog up the escalators on the metro as they go to look at those monuments. Their confusion reminds me that we are all sometimes confused. Their wonder at the things we see everyday reminds me to stop and look. And I am thankful for the diversity of those tourists. The folks in red hats ride the same metro as the folks in pink hats.  They all come to celebrate, protest, or just take in some history. This city is America’s living room, where all of it happens, and I am glad we manage to share it peacefully.
I am thankful for the people who live here permanently, and who welcome all of us who pass through their home. Like the Metro Station Manager who greets the throng of lanyard-wearing smart phone-staring commuters with a song every day, and who calls Thursday “Friday Eve.” I’ll miss him, and all of the other locals who make the DMV great.
I am thankful for the immigrants who live here. The Korean family who run the convenience store I frequent, remembering the names of so many of their customers. My Arabic teachers who hail originally from Yemen, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and so many other places, and who help their students understand a part of the world that is mysterious to so many of us. The Mexican guy who runs my favorite taco truck. The Guatemalans at our favorite chicken place who speak Spanish to J. We are a diverse country, and I’m glad that our capital region reflects that.
I am thankful when I bump into friends here at the Foreign Service Institute. Our Department is huge, and we are spread out all over the world, and it can be frustrating to make a friend only to be quickly separated by geography. There’s something wonderful about the serendipity of seeing a familiar face in the hallway or on the shuttle. I’m thankful for the memories that I share with these people. I’m thankful for the stories they tell me about their adventures. And I am thankful for the hope of seeing them again.
I am thankful for the many friends and relatives who have visited us in our tiny apartment. As parents of small children we don’t spend as much time out and about as we used to, and sometimes we feel a bit boring. We are honored by the number of people who disagree, and have graced this apartment with their presence. These four walls have seen the making of many happy memories.

I am thankful for the many times I have had the chance to look at the moon through my Arlington window at three o’clock in the morning, and I’m thankful for the two young people who wake me up and give me the opportunity to look. It seems like yesterday that neither of these kids was here, and soon enough they will be grown and gone. Every moment is precious, even if it comes in the middle of the night.

I am thankful for the mother of those kids, she with the patience of Job, who for reasons that I can barely understand has decided to come with me on this crazy journey of life. I am thankful that she is always up for a new challenge. I am thankful that she always helps me to be less nervous about the future.
So thanks, Arlington, for being our home for this last chapter. We are glad that we get to come back someday!

Home

I sit on a deck, overlooking a lush, green yard. Blue jays and Chickadees flit in and out of the tall trees. Kids splash in a wading pool. I chew on a bratwurst, and sip on a Spotted Cow. I’m surrounded by family. Parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. The conversation revolves around the gardening, baseball, how the weather was this past winter, the prospects for a pleasant summer, and on and on. It’s the same conversation that has been carried on a thousand times, by us and by those who came before us, with the same understated Midwestern humor, hospitality, and warmth. It’s familiar. It’s beautiful. It’s perfect. I’m home.

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A few hours later I find myself sitting on an airplane, on the tarmac, awaiting takeoff. I travel with only a carry on. The ten thousand concerns that fill my 21st century brain have narrowed to the simple focus of getting from here to there. Gate numbers and arrival times. I settle into my seat, review some Arabic flashcards, and then start writing a little bit. The jet engines fire up. The plane accelerates, I am pressed into my seat, the vibration of the tires on the runway disappears as physics takes over and we rest on the air. An unmistakable sense of anticipation wells up in my chest. It’s that feeling you get at the beginning of a journey, sensing that an adventure is about to begin. No matter how many times I fly, and no matter how short or boring the trip, there is always that sense of possibility and anticipation when taking to the air. It’s exciting. It’s familiar. I’m home.

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My plane lands in DC after midnight, and I find my way to my car in the parking garage. This Toyota RAV4, far from new, that was purchased to handle the icy roads of Northern Wisconsin, has carried our family for many miles. It’s been from the far North, to South of the border. It’s seen the Grand Canyon, the Louisiana Bayou, the Great Lakes, and everything in between. I drove both of my kids home from the hospital in this car after they were born. It isn’t perfect. It smells like the stale cheerios that J has sprinkled all over it, and that I still haven’t found. There is a deep groove in the rug under the gas peddle, where my heal has rested for thousands of miles. The exterior has been dinged by hail, dust storms, pebbles, and tree branches. But still it’s perfect. This car has been a part of the story. It’s home.

I drive onto the parkway and catch a glimpse of the Washington Monument, illuminated in the night. I think about the following day, when I will put on my badge and lanyard (the mark of our tribe: Government Employees), board the metro, and join the river of people on their way to various offices and conference rooms of the DC region. I will talk with colleagues about the news, politics, travel, Arabic grammar. The conversation will be fast, laced with acronyms, and powered by Starbucks and sushi. The topics will change from hour to hour, as late breaking news gives us new fuel for the fire. The rhythm here is different from that of the back deck where I had lunch. And that’s okay. This too is familiar, and it has it’s beauty. I’m home.

I pull into another parking garage, get out, and ride an elevator up to a darkened apartment. I stumble as my foot comes down on a jagged piece of lego nestled in the carpet, and I almost break my neck when I trip over a bassinet. Toys and baby paraphernalia are strewn from one side of the apartment to the other, just as they were when we departed two days ago. But the owners of those toys, as well as their saint of a mother who works day and night to pick up those toys, are not here. They are staying at that house with the deck for a few more weeks, and I have come home. Though without them it is not quite home. The location is the same, but it seems to have been robbed of the life it had before. I feel a little bit lost. Home, but not at home.

Anthony Bourdain,* Patron Saint and poet laureate of 21st century global wanderers, says it well. “Where is home? Most of us are born with the answer—others have to sift through the pieces.” For those of us who have chosen a life of travel, or had it chosen for us, the notion of home can be at the very least confusing. We feel comfortable in a million different places and bask in the joy of frequent homecomings. Every city and airport that we’ve known welcomes us with sights and sounds and smells that evoke clouds of memory. And yet, none of these places feels as though it is truly ours. We are always far away from people and places that we love. We are always saying goodbye. Just as our roots start to connect with the soil we feel them ripped away. Sure, we can talk knowledgeably about the weather but we know we won’t be around to see the next winter, so our discussion rings hollow. And visits to familiar places are tinged with the melancholy of knowing we can’t stay, and with the missing of the people who shared that place with us and have now moved on to their own new chapters. Where are we from? Where do we belong? Many of us never really figure it out. We feel our hearts have been smashed and scattered to all the places we have loved. It’s confusing, and often painful.

Anthony Bourdain recently lost his earthly battle with the demons he was fighting. It’s a tremendous loss first for his immediate friends and family, but also for those of us who were encouraged by his work.  He showed us, through the lenses of travel, food, and conversation, that people are people, regardless of where they live. He found hospitality in places you would expect, like Mexico and the Dominican Republic, but also in places where (based on what we see on the news) an American might be shy to go, like Russia, Cuba, and Iran. He illustrated that a humble and generous view of the world can open doors to amazing meals and relationships. He showed us that we can find home in a million places by staying curious and trying new things.

Maybe he showed us some of what we need to ease the pain of our frequent departures. Maybe, by being willing to share a bratwurst, a beer, a taco, or some sushi anywhere and with anyone, we will keep finding a little bit of home everywhere. Because a meal leads to a conversation, which leads to relationship. And relationships are the bricks that homes are built out of. At the end of it all home is about the people. Those we have loved, those we now love, and those we will love. They turn any house into a home, and they make any country feel like our native land. Yes, the people are what keep us going, even when they are far away, and even when they throw lego on the floor for us to step on.

 

*for those who may not be familiar with him, Anthony Bourdain was a chef and traveler who visited every corner of the world you can think of, and made documentaries about it for CNN. His latest show is called “Parts Unknown,” and you can find it on Netflix. It’s awesome.

To Our Daughter

You, Alina Joy Brown, came into the world on a Thursday evening that sang of Spring. Outside daffodils began to poke their leaves through the Virginia soil, and blue jays, robins, and larks called their greetings from trees full of swollen branches that are minutes away from exploding with leaves and blossoms. And in the delivery room had the NCAA tournament on TV, because March is March, after all. You arrived fast and yelling, just like your brother. It seems that you have places to go and things to say.

We are so glad you are here. Your cradle and clothes are ready. All of your grandparents and several aunts have had plane tickets booked for months, excitedly waiting to see your face and hold your little hand. Your brother has been practicing saying your name and will surely be glad to shower you with his infinite and enthusiastic attention. The cherry blossoms will be out soon, and we will take you to see them. Before you know it we will get on a plane and land in Saudi Arabia, where your earliest memories will be set to a backdrop of sand dunes and date palms. That will only be the beginning of your adventures. We’re going to live in lots of places, and visit even more. We will see mountains, jungles, castles and oceans together. We will eat exciting and tasty food, and dance to music that you won’t hear on the radio in Michigan or Wisconsin. You will learn to communicate with and love people from many backgrounds. And before any of us know it you will be off having your own adventures, exploring and experiencing this big, beautiful world on your own two feet.

Things will not always be easy. This world can be pretty dark. Injustice and pain can crush in on us from all sides and make it hard to find our way. In all honesty, you have been born into a difficult time in our country and world. Kids were gunned down at their school in Florida just a couple of weeks ago, and none of the grown-ups know what to do about it. The Korean peninsula could be on the brink of a terrifying war, like other parts of the world. And every day we are reminded that women, right here in America, are often treated as second class citizens to men, held back, assaulted, and then ignored. The times, daughter, are dark.

What is so remarkable, though, is that light shines the brightest when the darkness seems to be at its deepest. Within hours of the terrible attack in Florida we saw the kids who were attacked, not a lot older than you, standing up and demanding change, calling for all of us to be better. Just yesterday tens of thousands of kids all over the country stood and marched for change, in solidarity those who are hurting. Just last month the Winter Olympics took place in South Korea, and we were reminded that there is still room for the shared celebration of excellence and beauty, even when the drums of war begin to sound. And seeing the two Koreas march into the opening ceremony under one flag showed us that maybe the guns can remain silent. Maybe there is a better way. And the millions of brave women with the courage to say #MeToo show us just how many people are fighting tooth and nail to give a better world to you and the rest of your generation. Lights shining in darkness, brightly, bravely, and persistently. And the great thing is that light, no matter how small, always overcomes darkness. Light always wins.

And we, daughter, are meant to be part of that light. Jesus told us so himself. He told us that we are the light of the world, and that our job is to shine brightly. We are supposed to do all of the wonderful and mysterious things that light does: to reveal what is hidden, to inspire joy, to illuminate what is beautiful, to bring comfort in the midst of fear, and to spark growth. Our job is to push back against darkness, even and especially when it is at its deepest.

“Alina” means “light,” and our prayer is that you would always shine brightly. We pray that wisdom, truth, joy, and courage will light your path, and that they will empower you to bring light to dark places. And we pray most of all that you will come to know the One who is the source of all light, and that you would draw strength from His voice, just as Lucy did when she heard Aslan’s voice speaking encouragement to her in the middle of deep darkness (that’s from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. We will read it to you soon). May you know light that you may become light. Courage, dear heart.

We love you immeasurably, and we can’t wait to see what will happen next,

Your Dad and Mom

In which I give thanks from the bike lane…

Every morning tens of thousands of denizens of DC, Virginia, and Maryland roll out of bed and into buses and Metro trains, and are delivered (often efficiently) to their places of work. This twice-daily mass movement of people is a remarkable feat of logistical engineering, especially considering that some of the participants never even glance up from their smartphones while en route. My train arrives, I get on and off. I pay with the swipe of a card. The system takes me where I need to go. Automated efficiency.

But I often get tired of the Metro. I feel like another widget on the conveyor belt of a giant assembly line. An inanimate object, kept inanimate by the hypnotizing glow of my phone, carried by the machine to my place inside the greater machine. I feel claustrophobic.

I live for the days when weather and timing permit me to ride my bike to work. I pedal out of the dark parking garage and into the sunshine, feeling the slap of the cool fall air on my face. I turn right, into the narrow bike lane that provides a (usually) open path through the rush hour traffic.The ride is a straight shot down hill, so I go fast. I always check my brakes before leaving, reminded by a constant tingle in the scar on my arm of a time when my brakes did not serve me well. I arrive at work energized by the exercise, and the thrill of weaving in and out of traffic and dodging pedestrians who can’t look up from their phones to save their life. I’m also heartened by the sights my ride has shown me. I pass kids on their way to school and parents pushing strollers. I’ve seen people walking their dogs. I see crews of road workers and landscapers who have probably been working for hours already. The trees are still adorned with crimson and gold. At quiet intersections I can even hear birds chirping. My ride reminds me that this community through which I travel is a living, breathing place, full of people and animals who are not the lanyard-wearing, coffee-carrying crowd on the Metro.

My ride wakes me up to the beauty of the world I live in, and reminds me of much for which I am thankful.

I am thankful for the birds who stick around despite the autumn cold, bringing music and beauty in the midst of a concrete jungle.

I am thankful for the apartment complex that plants and maintains colorful flower beds along the sidewalks. They don’t have to do it, but they do. And I’m thankful for the guys who weed the beds and water the plants, and for the Spanish I hear them speaking as I zip past.

I am thankful for the Korean immigrant family who run the convenience store downstairs, and for all of the other immigrants who have started businesses that serve this community well. I am thankful for Peruvian chicken, Lebanese kebabs, Italian pizza, and for the smells that waft over me as I ride past. I’m thankful for all of the flavors that contribute to this American feast.

I think about my bicycle, a Trek, made back home in Wisconsin. I am thankful for the ingenuity and craftsmanship that put it together. I am also thankful for the generosity of the Burke family who own Trek, and who funded a graduate fellowship program which made possible much of what I’ve been able to do in life, and who gave me this bike.

I look at the scar on my arm, and I am thankful for the surgeons who bolted it back together after my crash five years ago. I am thankful for healthcare.

I am thankful for city planners and elected officials who see fit to include bike lanes and trees in their vision for their community, cause there’s so much that you just can’t experience on the Metro.

As I lock up my bike and head for the elevator to my classroom I think about Arabic. Last week I learned the words for “optimist” (متفائل) and “pessimist” (متشائم) which got me thinking a bit about those concepts. I am an optimist, and I feel like we optimists are falsely labelled as people who blindly trust that everything will work out for the best. That’s not exactly how I feel about the world. I know that war, famine, earthquakes, hurricanes, and death are real. I also know that human selfishness, ignorance, and laziness often drown out the better angels of our nature in the discussion over solutions. We fail. A lot. But I do believe that things CAN work out, if we put our backs and our brains into it. I’ve seen it on my bike ride. We can build bikes and bike lanes, start businesses, cook amazing food, and fix broken arms. Birds can continue to sing as the winds of November blow hard, and trees can put on an art show better than anything in a museum. And this thick-skulled Mid-Westerner can be taught how to say “optimist” and “pessimist” in Arabic. If those things are possible than surely anything is. An optimist isn’t a person who blindly trusts that it will all be okay. An optimist is someone who looks up, sees the good, and works to make it grow.

So this Thanksgiving I encourage you to be an optimist. Get up out of the physical or spiritual Metro tunnel that you find yourself in, put down the phone, and look around. There’s a lot to see, a lot to be thankful for, and a lot of work to do.

Thanks for reading!

Goodbye, Grampa

The sun is not shining as I walk from my apartment to the metro station. The bright mornings of early autumn have given way the dim grayness of November. The brisk morning air, so invigorating just last week, has grown icy cold fingers that reach through clothing and touch me with an uncomfortable chill. The birds are leaving. The trees are shedding their beauty, preparing for the long sleep of winter.

My memory goes back to the family gathering from which I have just returned. Aunts, Uncles, Cousins, Second Cousins, Sisters, Parents. A rowdy crowd, packed into a small house, laughing, singing, eating, telling stories. It’s difficult to imagine that such a gathering could feel empty given the amount of genuine love we have for one another, but this one did. My grandfather was not there. He had taken his leave of this world a few days earlier, and we had come together from all over the world to say a final farewell. His chair sat, and sits, right where it always had. The paper nearby. The reading lamp ready. It looks for all the world like he has gotten up simply to walk into the next room. All weekend long I found myself expecting him to come around the corner, perhaps suggesting that we eat a bowl of ice cream, probably singing a jolly song. But he never returned to the room.
grandpa's chair

We spent these days hearing and telling stories about him, at the funeral, during the visitation, and in quiet family conversations. He was a good man who lived a good life. He served faithfully whenever the call came, even when it wasn’t glamorous. During the Second World War he was called to serve, but this call did not send him to the front. He performed the thankless (yet important) bureaucratic task of filling out reports in an office on a base in North Carolina. After the war, and after many hours in college and seminary spent studying the words of Jesus, he with his wife (my Grandmother) and infant son (my Dad) boarded a ship for a country that many people at the time may not have been able to easily find on a map. They went to Pakistan because they took seriously the charge given by Christ to go to the ends of the earth and make disciples. They served faithfully and humbly for 35 years, distant from family, facing physical, emotional, and spiritual challenges, and forgoing earthly riches (the book is available here. It’s a great read).

They returned to the U.S., continued to be active in lots of ministries, and spent a lot of time loving their kids and grand kids. Their nuclear family has given the world pastors, professors, medical professionals, aid-workers, writers, poets, musicians (amateur as well as professional), entrepreneurs, and artists. It is a hard-working, humble, optimistic, and passionate group of people who make the world brighter, and who love their kids and nieces and nephews with a love that has been deeply influenced by the devotion that my grandparents gave to their kids and grand kids. Through their humble faithfulness to callings both big and small my grandparents have constructed the foundation of a truly remarkable building.

My grandfather died at home, after many months of illness, and after having recently spent time with each of his children, and having just met two of his youngest great grand children in recent weeks. We believe, as he did, that death is a door, and that he has passed through that door into the loving arms of Jesus. We look forward to seeing him again when the time comes.

These are just some the pieces of the story that we have heard repeated over and over again in different ways over the past week, and that we celebrated. We laughed almost as much as we cried. We celebrated even as we mourned.

And yet, I still feel sad. The sky remains gray. Because, as good a life as my grandfather lived, and even though his impact will continue to echo through the years, and as much as I truly do believe in eternal life, he is still gone. I won’t see him smile as I tell him stories about my latest overseas adventure. He won’t tell me any more stories about his adventures. I won’t hear him sing about the old family toothbrush, or tell me how “Fuzzy-Wuzzy was a bear” (Fuzzy-Wuzzy had no hair. Fuzzy-Wuzzy wasn’t fuzzy, was he?). He won’t meet my daughter, or be someone who my son remembers. And that hurts like the dickens.

Christianity teaches me that death will not have the final word. But death still hurts terribly, both for those who experience its approach and for those who remain in its wake. It’s an awful thing. So we need not dismiss the pain by saying that death is inevitable so we shouldn’t be upset by it, or by claiming that the reality of eternal life somehow takes the sting away. Death hurts, and sometimes there is nothing to do but look up at the gray sky that reflects our mood and let the tears flow.

And how do we go forward? How do we keep getting up in the morning in the face of so much inevitable pain and loss? My Uncle Stan shared during the funeral that as a young man at boarding school he had faced some challenges. He wrote about it to my grandpa, who replied to Stan with words of encouragement, advising him to stick it out and not become discouraged. To faithfully stay the course, doing what he knew to be right. My grandpa knew a thing or two about faithfully staying the course. So for today, and tomorrow, I will stay the course as well, continuing to put one foot in front of the other, and doing so with a song on my lips and a joke at the ready.

And it just so happens that Grampa left us with a poem that is perfect encouragement on days that are hard to face. Many thanks to my dear sister Melanie for reminding me of it earlier this week. In my mind I will always hear it in my Grandpa’s voice, and I now share it with you:

It Couldn’t Be Done
By Edgar Albert Guest

Somebody said that it couldn’t be done
      But he with a chuckle replied
That “maybe it couldn’t,” but he would be one
      Who wouldn’t say so till he’d tried.
So he buckled right in with the trace of a grin
      On his face. If he worried he hid it.
He started to sing as he tackled the thing
      That couldn’t be done, and he did it!
Somebody scoffed: “Oh, you’ll never do that;
      At least no one ever has done it;”
But he took off his coat and he took off his hat
      And the first thing we knew he’d begun it.
With a lift of his chin and a bit of a grin,
      Without any doubting or quiddit,
He started to sing as he tackled the thing
      That couldn’t be done, and he did it.
There are thousands to tell you it cannot be done,
      There are thousands to prophesy failure,
There are thousands to point out to you one by one,
      The dangers that wait to assail you.
But just buckle in with a bit of a grin,
      Just take off your coat and go to it;
Just start in to sing as you tackle the thing
      That “cannot be done,” and you’ll do it.

Regarding why we do it. (Home Leave Reflections: Part 3 of 3)

We have spent most of this summer taking a long vacation that the State Department requires all Foreign Service families to take in between tours of duty. The Foreign Affairs Manual states that “the purpose of home leave is to ensure that employees who live abroad for an extended period undergo reorientation and re-exposure in the United States on a regular basis.” We have been on the road for six weeks, visited 18 states, and seen a lot. This short series is my effort to tell you what I learned during the reorientation. Read part one here.

The journey has ended, at least for the moment. The car has been emptied and the suitcases stowed under the beds in our Arlington apartment, waiting to be loaded up again for our move to the Middle East in a little less than a year. Books have been put on the shelves, and pictures on the walls. We are home, for now, as much as any Foreign Service family is ever really at home. K and J explore local parks and libraries. I have become another one of the countless lanyard-wearing coffee carrying workers who scurry through Metro stations every day to staff the desks and sit in the conference rooms of our Nation’s Capital.

My mind often wanders back to a breakfast we enjoyed on an August morning in the middle of our trip. It was at a small restaurant in the neighborhood I grew up in. The building was once home to a bagel shop, before switching to a sandwich shop, both cookie cutter chain places. Now it’s an independently owned juice and sandwich shop, run by a family who hail from Mexico City originally. They serve up fresh smoothies and “aguas frescas,” along with a decent selection of breakfast treats that made us feel right at home. I chatted with the owner for a little while. He moved to the U.S. when he was young. Spent years waiting tables and washing dishes, saving up to be able to start his own business. Now he’s done it. The food was amazing . The company was even better.

I spent an awful lot of time over the last two years working on Immigrant Visas. The work can be challenging, and repetitive. It can come to feel a bit mundane. What makes it come alive is the awareness that each and every case represents the story of someone who is on a journey. Looking for something better. It was neat to wander into this little restaurant and encounter someone who had already been on that journey, and who is now living out the American dream, and making one part of our country a little bit brighter and tastier. It was neat to be reminded of why the work matters.

Now, as I ride the metro every day, and sit in Arabic class, attempting to get my head around the difference between ح and ه, it is tempting to fall victim to how mundane it feels. I liked our long road trip, and I liked being in the mix of things in Mexico, and I’m not sure I’m built for sitting in a classroom.

So I return, in my mind, to that little juice shop. I think about what a joy it was to speak Spanish with the owner. I hope I will eventually be able to do that in Arabic. To explore new perspectives and build new friendships in a way that only shared language allows. Language is a door to all sorts of exciting things, and I get excited when I think of the hundreds of Officers like me who are now studying dozens upon dozens of different languages. I think of the work they will do using those building blocks of vocabulary and grammar. The problems that they will solve, and the bridges that they will build. Nelson Mandela said “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in HIS language, that goes to his heart.” These officers will be able to speak to the hearts of many by the time they finish their course work.

So I won’t fall victim to routine. I will remember that the work we do overseas has an impact back home, whether we see it or not. Everything is connected. And I guess that’s why we keep going with the endless and often frustrating cycle of packing, unpacking, goodbyes, hellos, unfamiliar places, new routines, and longing for what is left behind. We do it because we understand that everything is connected, and that our job is to use those connections to make the world a bit better. And sometimes that starts with figuring out the difference between ح and ه.

Regarding things that are bigger on the inside than they look on the outside (Home Leave Reflections: Part 2 of 3)

We have spent most of this summer taking a long vacation that the State Department requires all Foreign Service families to take in between tours of duty. The Foreign Affairs Manual states that “the purpose of home leave is to ensure that employees who live abroad for an extended period undergo reorientation and re-exposure in the United States on a regular basis.” We have been on the road for six weeks, visited 18 states, and seen a lot. This short series is my effort to tell you what I learned during the reorientation. Read part one here.


On a quiet street in Rochester, NY, there is a small house that appears quite ordinary. Two stories, one car garage, basketball hoop in the driveway. It looks like so many other houses on so many other streets in America. One could probably drive by without taking much note of it. From the outside it does not seem particularly special.

The opposite could not be more true. When I step into this house I am reminded of the truth that a home is more than the four walls and a roof that make up a house. This house, like that old coat closet in “The Lion, The Witch, & The Wardrobe” is a gateway to something magical. It is bigger on the inside than it looks from the outside. For it is this house that was the stage for many of my earliest memories. It was here that my cousins and sisters and I would play tag and hide-and-seek in the yard and the basement. It is here that we would take turns hurling ourselves onto the floor from atop a bunk bed. It is here that countless hours were dedicated to lego construction projects, jigsaw puzzles, and board games. It is here that my Uncle and Aunt have lived since the 1980s, and where my Grandparents came to live with them in recent years. Every wall has pictures of my loved ones on it. Every room holds memories for me. This is a place where I have talked, played, sang, argued, and grown in the company of many people who have shaped the person that I have become.

This house contains far more than its modest appearance would have you believe.

Most families, like most houses, do not appear particularly noteworthy from the outside. They are ordinary people who get up and go to work or school, church and football on the weekends, an occasional cookout or vacation. Yet each family, no matter how ordinary they appear, is a living vessel of stories. These stories may be of joy, pain, humor, tragedy, redemption, or all of it mixed up together. And if earthquakes, hurricanes, fires, wars, cancer, and death teach us anything, it is that shared stories are what most endure in this world. When everything else is destroyed our stories remain, to remind us of who we are and to keep us going. Family, whether it is created by birth, adoption, marriage, friendship, or foreign service assignment, is how we keep stories alive. Family, it turns out, is far bigger on the inside than it looks from the outside, and it gives us access to something magical and essential.

There is much in the life of a Foreign Service Officer that does not endure for long. We move often. We have to make new friends. Learn new jobs. Adjust to new climates, cultures, and diets. We can feel like tumbleweeds. This is one of the reasons that home leave is important. It gives us time to remember what keeps us rooted. It’s walking through a prairie with my Dad, and watching the Packers with my Mom. It’s asking my Grandparents questions about what things were like during the Great Depression. It’s huddling around old family photographs with K’s relatives, and trying to identify the old lady in a bonnet in a faded black and white photo. It’s standing in front of a church congregation, and pledging to pass along to J the same heritage of faith that has been passed to us, going back many generations. It’s watching as he spends time with grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, second cousins, great-aunts and uncles, and knowing that he is a part of this story, even if he doesn’t yet understand what that means. It’s arriving back in Washington DC and finding members of our Foreign Service family waiting to hear our stories and tell us theirs. It’s the awesome joy we feel at the approaching arrival of a new baby, knowing how much they will be loved by so many people.


We are all part of a story. Regardless of the damage wrought by hurricanes (literal and figurative) and the uncertainty piqued by change, we all belong. It’s important that we keep stepping through the doors of those unassuming houses, entering Narnia, finding our family, sharing the old stories, and adding new ones. It’s what keeps us going, and lets us maintain roots even as we spread our wings.