Regarding Baseball…

It’s a Sunday afternoon, and the West Texas sun shines bright on the ballpark. I sit behind the visitor’s dugout, next to my father-in-law, with my baby son on my lap. Balls thunk into gloves. The smell of sizzling hot dogs fills the air. The crowd hums, most watching the game, some just enjoying the feeling of being out at the ballpark. Men and women, old and young, caught up in they rhythm of the great American past time.

Some call this game boring, but I find comfort in the steady rhythms of the game. Three strikes. Three outs. Nine innings. It’s predictable, with the opportunity for surprise and thrill implicit in every pitch. And there’s always hope, as long as one out remains. And every sight, sound, and smell is for me deeply tied up with memory.
I close my eyes, and I’m a little kid, glove on hand, hoping to catch a foul ball in the stands at a Pawtucket Red Sox game. I don’t know the rules of the game. I’m in awe of the hugeness of the park. My sister says if I pay attention I might catch a ball.
I’m a bit older, playing on a little league team in Pakistan, with my sister and cousins. I have to wear the uniform of the hated Yankees, and I fear that my mother won’t come to see me play as I know the reputation that the Yankees have in our household. My fears are unfounded. I remember the roar of the crowd when I hit one past the shortstop and take two.

I’m in Middle School, back in the U.S., and the Red Sox are on TV almost every night. Mo Vaughn. Mike Greenwell. Jose Canseco. Tim Wakefield. We don’t talk about Roger Clemens anymore. I stay up  most nights watching the game until forced to bed by parents who understand the importance of rest. I dream of going to Fenway.

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I’m in high school, visiting colleges in the Boston area with my Dad and sisters. We walk by Fenway, and wander up to the ticket booth. The tickets are expensive, but there are some left for that afternoon’s game. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. We buy them, and the experience is magical. Beyond what I had dreamed.
I’m in college, troubled by politics and so much else that my young mind perceives as being broken in the world, and low on funds. A ticket to the Lansing Lug Nuts or Detroit Tigers is always cheap and available, and there are always friends to go with. The rhythm of the ballpark provides a sanctuary from the existential questions that torment young minds finding their way in the world. In 2004 the Red Sox reverse the curse and win the world series. My friends and I stay up late and blow off work to watch every playoff game.
I’m a Peace Corps volunteer, sitting in the stands watching a winter league game between the Estrellas Orientales and Leones del Escogido. Merengue music blasts. Cheerleaders dance. The crowd sings elaborate songs between every pitch. I don’t know the songs, but the game is the same. I sit next to a beautiful woman who has for some reason agreed to date me. We talk about baseball. We talk about life. The conversation continues.
We’re sitting in a bar in Milwaukee, watching the Brewers win their first playoff series in 29 years. When the final run is scored it feels like the roof is going to come off the place. We’re a graduate student and an AmeriCorps volunteer, newly married, on a budget. Miller Park is less than a mile from our apartment, and tickets are cheap. We go to a lot of Brewer games, and that wonderful sunlit building with its retractable roof becomes a favorite place.
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A bat cracks, a line drive that zips right past the shortstop. I’m back in El Paso. My son is on my lap, trying to pull the hat off my head. We’ve been to a lot of games at this park, with friends who we won’t forget. People who’ve shared the beginnings of this Foreign Service life with us.  I realize that baseball, it’s atmosphere and it’s rhythm, have been a thread that has stretched through my life from the beginning. It doesn’t bring meaning or satisfaction in and of itself, but it is a conduit that connects me to memories of people, places, and different times in life. I look forward to carrying that thread into the future, with this kid on my lap and that beautiful woman who I took on cheap dates to ballgames and who still enjoys them. The setting will change, as will the climate, and teams we cheer for. But the story will continue. Care to catch a game with me sometime?

Regarding Volcanoes and Easter

K and I spent a few hours this week walking (with J riding) across a field of black ash and twisted rocks in the shadow of a tree covered mountain in Northern Arizona. Sunset Crater National Monument is where a volcano erupted, and it’s fascinating to explore.

Geology and chemistry tell us a lot about what happened here. Sometime between 1040 and 1100 C.E. a fissure opened up in the ground, and began spewing molten balls of lava into the air. Toxic gases and ash were released as well. The ash covered some 800 square miles, and the heat of the massive lava flows started myriad forest fires. When the event ended (after possibly as much as a year) all life within miles of the crater had been completely wiped off the map. The ash and rocks (cooled remains of the lava bombs) remain, revealing no hint, not even a solitary fossil, of the plants, animals, or people who were caught up in the disaster. Everything burned.

There is much that science doesn’t tell us, but that we can reasonably guess, about what this must have been like. It must have been terrifying for anyone close by. It was life changing for those who had to flee, and watch the farms and houses they had worked to build, and the forest on which they depended,  be consumed by forces outside of their control. We can imagine the cries of mothers whose children were out playing when the eruption started, but who never came back. The loss. The confusion. The dread for the future. 

Yesterday was Good Friday. A day that in its first iteration did not feel very good at all. Jesus’ followers watched as the man in whom they had placed their allegiance as King and Messiah was arrested, flogged, and executed like a common criminal. Their friend was dead. Their hopes for their nation were dashed. Personal grief mixed with a hopelessness about the future into a strong cocktail of despair. All was lost. I bet those folks (barring the obvious obstacles of language and time) would have had a lot to talk about with the folks from the Sunset Crater valley. Grief and pain know not the limits of time and culture. We too face it in our own ways. Cancer robs the young of life. Bombs and hunger are all too common. Ignorance trumps understanding. Institutions founded to make the world better fail to live up to their promise. There are times when we all feel those figurative and literal lava bombs crashing down around us.

Thankfully, that’s not the end of the story at Sunset Crater. We also visited several archaeological sites within a few hundred miles of the volcano, and learned that the century following the eruption appears to have been an unprecedented time of growth and advancement in the society. The population grew, and some of the most remarkable architectural projects in North America were realized. Some say that this flourishing may have been due to the nutrients given to the soil from the volcanic ash, which improved agricultural productivity.

I imagine that there were people who in the aftermath of the disaster steeled themselves for the task ahead. It can’t have been easy. But they stuck it out. They salvaged what remained. They found seeds and plows, and sowed new fields. They built new houses. They sought to do right by those who never came home, and found hope in the midst of unimaginable grief.

And the crucifixion was not the end of the story for those first Christ followers either. That’s the part that we will celebrate tomorrow. After a night of death, horror, and fear came a day of life, redemption, and hope. We, as Christians, believe that the resurrection of Christ represents the beginning of a new era. It is a time when all that is broken will be mended, and even death will ultimately be defeated. It is an era of hope. We know how the story ends. We know that good triumphs. So now we, when the fire and ash rain down on the world, can be the ones who despite our tears, pick up our plows and bags of seeds, and get to work. To bring flowers and food forth from the ashes. The times are hard, but our hope is real, and the world needs it. I’ll see you in the cornfield.

Regarding Grandeur

We visited the Grand Canyon today. It was a first for me. I expected it to be impressive. I’ve seen the pictures. I know of the brilliant quotes from the Teddy Roosevelts and John Muirs of the world who were moved to poetry by the canyon vistas. I know of the writers, painters, and photographers whose work was informed and inspired by this place. 

I knew all this, and I was still blown away when I, with my wife and son, rounded a corner and found myself staring off the edge of the world at a scene of a thousand colors. The immensity and beauty of the place is overwhelming.

I know that in the grand scheme of things the Grand Canyon is not that big. It is a scratch on a rock hurtling through space. A stream of water flowing across North America began plowing a path through the sand, eventually waring into the rock below, and kept going for a few million years, creating this scene in front of me. 
How is it that something that came about so simply could evoke such deep emotion? People of different cultures have been coming here for centuries, and being moved by what they see. The Canyon figured prominently in the beliefs of Native people groups who lived (and still live) here. I heard at least a dozen languages being spoken by fellow tourists today. People come from all over the world to experience this place. 

These feelings of awe triggered by witnessing the beauty of nature play a large role in the structure of my beliefs. These feelings, among other things, tell me that I am more than a mere physical being. There is a spiritual dimension to reality that is inescapable. C.S. Lewis said it brilliantly:

“We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words-to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.

That is why we have peopled air and earth and water with gods and goddesses and nymphs and elves-that, though we cannot, yet these projections can, enjoy in themselves that beauty grace, and power of which Nature is the image. That is why the poets tell us such lovely falsehoods. They talk as if the west wind could really sweep into a human soul; but it can’t. They tell us that ‘beauty born of murmuring sound’ will pass into a human face; but it won’t. Or not yet.

For if we take the imagery of Scripture seriously, if we believe that God will one day give us the Morning Star and cause us to put on the splendour of the sun, then we may surmise that both the ancient myths and the modern poetry, so false as history, may be very near the truth as prophecy.

At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Someday, God willing, we shall get in.”

-C. S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” in The Weight of Glory: And Other Addresses (New York: HarperCollins, 1949/2001), 42-3.

So I liked the Grand Canyon. You should go!

Book Review: “Passages Through Pakistan: An American Girl’s Journey of Faith”

Growing up overseas, far from extended family and the communities that our parents have known as home, is a complicated way to begin life. There are frustrations. We feel connected both to our “passport country” and to the land (or lands) that we have lived in, always feeling caught between worlds and never feeling that we completely belong or fit anywhere. Yet there are also immense joys. We experience adventure that the kids back home would never dream of. We make friends across the boundaries of language and culture. We eat incredible food. Relationships with family and friends, while challenged by distance and movement, gain a special kind of depth and richness.

Marilyn Gardner, in her autobiography “Passages Through Pakistan: An American Girl’s Journey of Faith,” has captured all of this. She describes her girlhood in Pakistan, growing up as the daughter of American missionaries. She sails in great ships, rides trains from one end of Pakistan to the other to get to boarding school, hops into tongas (horse drawn carriages) to explore the Pakistani community that her parents call home, and ultimately flies back to the U.S. at the end of high school. We watch her grow from a child who easily embraces life between worlds, to a teenager battling insecurities, to a brave young adult, eager to take on the world as she ventures into the unknown.

This book works for me on several levels. First, she paints a vivid and exciting picture of Pakistan in the 1960s and 70s. She has a deep love and appreciation for the country that she called home for a large part of her life, and that passion spills off of every page. We see Pakistan in the news a lot, and not necessarily for good reasons. Gardner describes Pakistan in a way that honors its rich culture, natural beauty, fascinating history, mouthwatering food, and hospitable people. It’s a picture that we would all do well to study before allowing the news to shape our perceptions. Second, she uses that same fine brush and bright palette to describe the joys and struggles that she faced as a child. She writes with courageous honesty, exploring doubt, fear, and feelings of inadequacy in a way that is refreshing to hear from a person of faith. She leaves it all on the field, and invites the reader to weep and laugh with her in equal measure. I was sorry to see it end, and eager to jump into the (as of yet unwritten) sequel to see what kind of an adult this remarkable young person becomes.

I have an unfair advantage on this last point, as Gardner is my Aunt, and I know quite a bit about the passionate, fun, and wise adult that she grows up to be. I have heard many of the stories in this little book before, but it remains a precious reminder of the treasures that come from living between worlds. Both of my parents grew up as Missionary Kids in Pakistan. I spent four years of my childhood there as well. My son, though he doesn’t yet understand it, is beginning his own journey of life in this in-between place. Exploring many cultures and settings. Probably never being exactly the same as the people with whom he finds himself surrounded. I worry sometimes that life as a global tumbleweed will leave him with insecurities. But this book reminds of the rich heritage to which he belongs, both in our biological family, and also in this big, diverse family of global wanderers who we are privileged to call friends and colleagues. This book reminds me that he’ll be okay, just like my Aunt was, and just like I am. Give it a read!


Regarding Roots…

It’s that time of year where the winds blow strong here on the border, pushing hard on everything. Windows rattle. Trees and plants bend to the earth. Some of the older shrubs, whose roots have dried and withered, lose their hold on the soil and begin rolling across the desert. Tumbleweeds. We see them on the road, in parking lots, in the front yard. Some tiny, and some as big as small cars. Blowing and rolling. Without roots they are disconnected, and go wherever the prevailing wind takes them.

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Sometimes we in the Foreign Service feel like those tumbleweeds. We are never in any one place for more than a few years. Mexico today, Washington tomorrow, Saudi Arabia after that. Even when we do stay put for a little while we find that the cast of characters around us continues to rotate. Nothing ever stays the same way for long. It’s easy to feel rootless and disconnected, like the breeze has taken us.

We were in Michigan for a nice long Christmas vacation, and we had my younger sister come visit us recently. All of this, combined with the relative newness of being a parent, has gotten me thinking about roots. I’ve lived in eleven cities in the last eleven years. K has lived in almost as many. We will live in many more. What sort of existence will this be for our son? Is he doomed to live the life of a tumbleweed, never knowing the feeling of being solidly grounded in the nourishing security of family and community? How can rootless parents teach a child to have roots?

Yet these fears are relieved when I visit places and people that are familiar. I remember that I do have roots. I felt my roots when my sister, fresh off a plane and exhausted, enthusiastically dove into a new board game with me. I felt my roots when I baked the Christmas cookies that my Mom has baked every year since I was a kid, and felt them again when I saw her a week later and she had brought along a large box filled with those same cookies (which tasted better than mine). I felt my roots when I visited the Michigan State campus, and the sight of every building stirred up a different memory. I felt my roots when I walked into the Breslin Center, that temple of basketball where my friends and I screamed our lungs out through many close games.

I feel doubly encouraged when I get the chance to explore K’s roots. I get a sense of those roots when we walk into a room filled with relatives who we haven’t seen for years and pick up the conversation right where we left off. We talk about how disappointing the Lions were this year. We retell old fishing stories (the fish get bigger every year). We sing the old Christmas carols, most of us off key, most of us dropping out after the first or second verse when we forget the words. We listen to and tell stories about how Grandpa J (no longer with us) used to insist on chewing every bite of food exactly 82 times, so every meal with him took hours to complete. Or about that time that Aunt M (still with us) took the turkey out of the oven and to her dismay discovered that it had no breast meat. Turned out she had cooked it upside down.

Somewhere in the midst of this immersion in the sea of family and memory I come to realize what roots really are. They are not simply the physical ties that bind us to a piece of soil. No. True roots are the strands of memory, relationship, and meaning that connect us to a story that is far bigger than ourselves. My son (like his parents) has been born into a network of roots that wind their way through Michigan, New England, Wisconsin, Pakistan, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico. It is a network of roots alive with countless songs, and teeming with stories. As long as we live we will work to connect him to those roots. In every building we call home we will put pictures on the walls that evoke that great story. We will tell and retell the chapters of that story (Aunt M with her turkey never gets old). We will connect him to the people who are characters in that story. Our hope is that our little tumbleweed will feel secure in his roots, regardless of where the wind blows him. And as he rolls into new and interesting adventures of his own, he will add strands to the network of roots, carrying the story forward.

In which we say goodbye to a President…

On the night of November 4, 2008 I sat on the tile floor of a hostel in the Dominican Republic and watched the election results come in. I was packed shoulder to shoulder with fellow Peace Corps volunteers. We had all come into the city from our various communities to take a hot shower and watch the climax of what had been a momentous election season. There were about fifty us packed into a room that could comfortably have held twenty (one of those fifty happened to be a beautiful young lady who would soon become my girlfriend, and eventually my wife, but most of you know that story already). We cheered when the election was called for Obama, and we wept as we listened to his victory speech with its call to service. We desired with all of our hearts to answer that call. We had already answered that call, idealistically living in houses without electricity or running water, partnering with people very different from ourselves to make the world a little bit better.

We drank rum, smoked cigars, and stayed awake until sunrise, heady with idealism at the possibilities that this new world could bring. I wrote some of my thoughts the next day.

Tonight I watched as President Obama gave his farewell address, and thought about that young volunteer and his friends, and the world they lived in and the world we now live in. A lot has happened, and a lot looks different. I did not watch tonight’s speech in a crowded hostel, but in a comfortable house on a couch with a dog on my lap. I did watch it with that same beautiful young woman, and we kept an eye on the baby monitor, hoping that the newest addition to our household would let us finish watching the speech without interruption. In 2008 I stayed up all night; tonight I am hoping to stay awake long enough to write my thoughts. Back then I woke up each day knowing that adventure beckoned, and that anything could happen. Now I have a job with a slightly more demanding schedule (interviews start at 8 sharp).

Yes, the viewer of the speech is a bit different, as is the world he lives in. But much of what the President said tonight resonated with me just as strongly as it did back then. And not the partisan stuff. It was the call to civic participation, and for taking our responsibility as citizens seriously. The call to pursue equality for all. The call to maintain dialogue with those who are different from us, regardless of how difficult or disheartening it might become.

I thought about the amazing things I’ve had a front row seat to see during the last eight years. I got to partner with poor Dominican farmers who are working to preserve the forest and river around their community, and succeeding. I got to help turn a ruined urban factory site into a beautiful park that is literally serving as a bridge between communities. I watched as elderly Luddites in Northern Wisconsin figured out ways to bring broadband Internet into their rural communities, to bring back jobs and rekindle a dying economy. Now I have the honor of watching a diverse and brilliant team of my fellow Americans work their tails off every day to adjudicate visas, protecting the security of our country while also reuniting families and growing the economy. Everywhere I’ve gone I’ve had the privilege of seeing, knowing, and working with people who are immensely creative and passionately motivated to make the world better through their work and sacrifice. I share Obama’s belief that our country, and the world, is at it’s best when we come together around common goals, focusing on what unites rather than what divides. I believed it then. I believe it now. And I’m not even tired.

My mom called me after the speech, inspired by what she heard, yet discouraged by so much of what we see in our country these days. There is division. There is dissonance. There is ignorance, on both sides of the aisle, regarding who our neighbors are and what they stand for. She asked me what she should do to make things better during these challenging times. I’ve been thinking about it, and I’m sure you the reader have plenty of other ideas (which I’d love to hear about in the comments), but here are some of my thoughts:

  • Put down the smart phone. I need to get better at this myself. There is a whole world of things to see and people to talk with. Reading is good…but sharing and re-sharing articles, or getting into arguments with strangers, seldom did much to improve the world.
  • Get involved with the local discussion. All the positive change I’ve ever seen happen in communities (whether it was in third world countries, big cities, or small towns) started with a group of concerned citizens talking about a problem and figuring out how to act together, in small ways, to make it better. And then things snowballed, and small change became big change. I guarantee you that within two miles of your house there is a group of people (probably local elected officials) who meet regularly to talk about how to fund the public library, or what to do with abandoned building, or how to improve the park this year. I also guarantee you that there are rows of chairs in that room, reserved for members of the public, that usually go unfilled. Get on google. Find the meetings. Show up. Share your opinion. Before you know it you’ll be helping to fix something real. Or you could play candy crush for two hours a day.
  • Get to know your elected officials. They are nice people, even if they belong to that other party. Almost every municipal, county, or state elected official I’ve ever met has been thrilled to spend time sitting with constituents talking (and even disagreeing) about issues. Buy them coffee. Have them over for dinner. Get to know them. You could become one of those people who they call on when they are trying to figure something out. And they might actually take your call when you disagree with them. I’ve seen it happen so many times.
  • Run for office! There are so many non-partisan elections at the neighborhood and town level (especially in rural places) where there is only one candidate on the ballot and where you’d only have to go to a couple of meetings a month. Give it a shot! If you lose you lose, and if you win you get to help build something.
  • Get a job in government. State, local, federal. Yes, there’s a lot of bureaucracy, but it’s amazing how much of the business of making the world better is done by modest, hardworking people in cubicles who are not being paid nearly enough. Public servants rock. Become one!
  • Hang around people who are not like you. This is why social media stinks. We friend people who share our culture, education level, politics…and we end up just looking in the mirror when we think we’re looking at the world. Get out. Make some new friends. Challenge yourself to see the world from someone else’s perspective. If we all did think how good we would be at making things better.

I am sad to see Obama step off the stage, but such is life in this American Democracy. I’m optimistic about the times to come. I continue to be amazed by the work that my friends and family are doing, in big ways and small, all over the world. The starry eyed outlook of that young Peace Corps volunteer sitting on a floor in 2008 may have taken on new forms (nine to five job and all), but the idealism remains. The world can be better. The world will be better. We, my friends, will see to it.

Regarding Airports and Advent…

We flew to Michigan earlier this week. It was our first time on a plane with the baby, and the first time that I can remember ever having travelled by air around the holidays. We flew El Paso to Denver, sat in Denver for about four hours, and then on to Grand Rapids. It was a long layover in Denver and as I looked out at the sun setting over the Rockies and tried to trick J into sleeping amidst the noise and stimulation of the airport terminal I started to think about waiting. 

We had a long time to wait for that plane. Lots of other people were waiting for planes too. Lots of people were facing delays. The restaurants were full of people waiting for food, and workers likely waiting for their shifts to end. The carousels were surrounded by people waiting for luggage. A man with a puppy walked past us, quickly and purposefully, trying to persuade the puppy to wait until they could find a way to get outdoors. I knew that in another part of the airport there would be hundreds of people waiting in arrival areas, eager to hug and kiss their friends and relatives as they got of planes just in time for Christmas. Everyone at an airport is waiting for something.

I thought about the things that we as a family are waiting for. We recently waited for a baby, and now he’s here, people-watching with us in this airport. We are waiting with enthusiasm to see parents, grandparents, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends during our time in Michigan, and to reconnect a little bit with them. To learn about the things that they are waiting for in their lives. We are waiting, with some sadness, for our time in Mexico to end in the summer. We are waiting to see what the next chapter is like. We wait with hope, fear, joy, doubt, and every other feeling that humans are capable of. Waiting seems to be a central feature of the human condition.

There is a lot that people wait for. A bus to arrive. Cookies to bake. Test results to arrive. An email or a phone call, that may or may not come. A visa. A home. Peace. We wait for good, beautiful things, just as we we wait for awful, heartbreaking things. We wait, because there is not much else that we can do. Human technology and understanding have come a long way, but we have not been able to completely overcome that obstacle of time that requires us to sit, be patient, and reflect upon that which is to come.

The Christmas season pushes us to embrace this waiting. We watch the decorations come out, and the gifts slowly collect around the foot of the tree. We consider the empty stockings hanging on the fireplace (or in our case on the bannister…no fireplace in our Mexican house), anticipating the tasty goodies that will soon fill them to overflowing. We monitor our text messages to see how close the relatives are to arriving. The refrigerator and pantry fill up with goodies, the makings of a feast. This year I consider my infant son as these things transpire around him, waiting for him to be old enough to understand and share in the joy of the anticipation.

Advent is about waiting. Many of these traditions started to help us to think about the arrival of Jesus. The Jewish people waited for centuries for Messiah to arrive, bringing freedom and fulfillment. Many still wait. We wait now for His second coming; for that day when all wrongs will be put right, all tears will be dried, and death will finally and fully be defeated. We wait for that day, even as we work to bring about peace and justice in the present. We light the candles. We decorate the tree. We wrap the gifts. We cook the food. 
For some people it is a meaningless exercise in the tradition of consumerism. For me, I revel in the spirit of anticipation. The gifts may not provided ultimate fulfillment. The food may give me heartburn. Family may occasionally frustrate me. But the anticipation of good things fosters a spirit of hope and optimism that can be cultivated throughout the year. And what do we need, after all, in times like these if not hope and optimism? Come, Lord Jesus. Teach us hope. Teach us joy. Teach us to be the fulfillment of the hope that others have, when we are able.

Best wishes to you, dear reader, for a Happy Holiday season. We are glad that you have read our blog, and we hope that you continue to come back in 2017 and beyond.