On Joy and Grief Online

We will be having a baby any day now. The house is full of little sets of clothes, toys, and diapers. The freezer is full of food. Our hearts are full of joy, and we couldn’t be more ready to embark on the road of parenthood. I have no doubt that our social media profiles and online presence will soon start to reflect that joy. Lots of baby pictures to come.

And in this calm before the storm of joy I find myself reflecting on life as seen through social media, and how it seldom tells the whole story.

In February of 2014 K went through a miscarriage. We lost a baby who would now be getting ready to celebrate his or her second birthday. We were riding on a highway of joy that collided into a brick wall of shock and grief. A life for which we had such hopes and dreams was gone before it had a chance to even breathe air. It was devastating. It was confusing. It was ugly.
It was most definitely not made for social media. Facebook is where you put the simple things that can be expressed with a photo or short blurb. Cute babies. Jokes. The latest news story over which we should all be outraged. How do you post about something hard and ugly and intimate in a way that will be understood?

We told family and friends about our grief. We had a lot of awkward conversations, and a lot of good ones. We found love and support through our Faith community. People who had been simply acquaintances or co-workers earned the title of honorary family member by coming alongside us and loving us well, even when it was hard.

I look back at my facebook profile from that time period and it seems like a lie. We didn’t post about the miscarriage. We were afraid to be vulnerable in so public a forum. Maybe we were afraid to be a buzz kill. Maybe we were afraid our grief would be misunderstood, or scoffed at. There are pictures of vacations, fun dinners with friends and family, and other happy things. The pictures and posts, though, don’t reveal the grief and struggle that existed in our offline world.

The face we present to the online world can be so disconnected from reality. Our lives can look like everything is awesome. We express grief and solidarity with big world events or the passing of a loved one. We express anger and outrage at the big things that we all see. But the personal brokenness, hurting relationships, struggles with the intimate yet real injustices that touch all of our lives are so often unseen.

I’m not sure what to do about it. The in-person love and support we received from so many during that time is worth far more than anything we could have gotten online. I think it’s okay that we kept the miscarriage to the offline world as we walked through it. We found real love and healing from better, more huggable sources.

But we wanted to tell you that even now as we walk into a time of joy, we have been in the desert. Our smiles will be big and our laughter frequent, but we have known deep and bitter tears. We will never forget that lost baby, and there will always be that empty seat at the table of our hearts. And we will know grief again as life continues and the inevitable happens. You, friends and family, have loved us well through ups and downs, and you will again. We thank you, and remind you that we are eager to do the same, online (as necessiated by geography) and off.

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Today

In the midst of the hustle and bustle of life it’s easy to take for granted the places we go, the things we do, and the shape and flavor of our life at this time and in this place. This post is an attempt to capture what a day here can feel like…using the events of today.

I get up early; usually before 6 AM. My alarm goes off, and the dog goes to work head-butting and licking me until she gets her breakfast. I enjoy a cup of coffee in the early morning quiet, reading some news, exercising, cooking a big breakfast. K is sleeping later than usual today. It turns out that being pregnant is pretty tiring. I leave early for work, opting to walk. The weatherman says that it will be over 100 degrees out every day starting soon, so I want to enjoy being outside while I can.

I approach the Consulate and see the crowd of visa applicants converging on the entrance. We don’t begin interviewing until 8, but many applicants get here hours earlier to get in line. I go in through the employee entrance on the side, along with the locally employed staff who are starting to arrive. A local guard in a gray uniform opens the door for me with a friendly “buen dia” which I return. I walk up the driveway, past the beautifully tended flower bed and the big lawn that our dog loves to run around on when we bring her in on the weekends. I enter the main building, exchanging another “buen dia” with the guards at the door. I look up at the big pictures of the President, Vice President, and Secretary of State that are right above the door that connects the lobby to the rest of the building. The guard behind the glass buzzes me in. I turn a corner, and I’m inside the biggest consular section in the world; an ocean of desks and cubicles that will soon be abuzz with activity. I see a pair of local colleagues pushing a huge cart of cardboard boxes out of the cavernous filing room. Our shipment of visa cases awaiting adjudication today. Only 600 and something of them…not a terribly heavy day.

I carry my mug of coffee to the window where I sit to adjudicate my cases. We have about a hundred windows that officers can sit at. The Consulate is like the world’s biggest bank, or DMV. Dozens and dozens of us sitting behind glass, dealing with the customers who come. Our local colleagues have been hard at work for nearly an hour already, checking in the applicants who have traveled so far for their ten minutes in front of an American officer. I spend the time before we start interviewing looking at some old cases that need a little bit of extra work. Here’s a case where the applicant has mailed me a thick stack of documents detailing their complicated legal history. There’s a case awaiting a clarification on the included medical exam. I spend the time until 8:00 combing through these details, determining which button ought to be pushed.

Our windows are located in an area that we call an island. Imagine a rectangular room in which three of the walls are lined with windows. Each window has a desk and a seat in front of it, facing outward. This is where we work, about twenty of us doing Immigrant Visas, facing out our windows at the people who come. In the middle of the island is a big table. It’s empty when I arrive, but is quickly filling up with manila file folders. Each folder is a visa case, containing the application, passport, and supporting documents of the people who will come to the windows. Each folder is a pile of paper. But each folder contains a lot more than that. A visa means that a family will be brought together after years or maybe decades of separation. A visa means the realization of years of hoping and praying. A visa, for many, is a dream come true. Each of these folders contains someone’s dreams, and within minutes the table is filled to overflowing.

My fellow officers have started to arrive. Some arrive earlier, and some arrive right before the interviewing starts. We are a motley crew. Men, women, black, white, Latino, Asian, gay, straight, married, single, young, and not as young. We look more than a little bit like America, which I think is appropriate given the business we’re about in this particular building.

8:00 strikes, and the window blinds go up. We begin to address the parade of characters that moves through our windows. They hand us a ticket with a number on it through the little slot in the window. We walk over to the big table and find the file with the matching number, and then take a nose dive into their story. Here’s a four year old, born in Mexico, whose mom is a green card holder and wants her son to come live with her in the States. Here’s an 80 year old woman whose six children all live in America. She’s never left Mexico, and has never met most of her grandchildren. She cries when I tell her that her visa is approved. Here’s a man my age, who lives without documents in my home state, and who arrived there the same year I did. Here’s someone who entered with fake documents. Here’s someone with a criminal history that they are being less than frank about. And on and on it goes, grappling with stories and a complicated set of immigration laws, determining how they connect with one another, and making findings of fact. On and on it goes until the big table is empty. Today we finish a little bit after 1:00, and I have interviewed more than thirty people. Some of them have had their dream of a visa come true, and others have had the dream either deferred or seen it drift out of reach.

I spend the afternoon working on complicated cases, and going to some meetings. I’m on the committee that is putting together the annual 4th of July party, which is a pretty big deal. There’s only about a month to go, and a lot of details to put in place before we bring hundreds of people into the Consulate to shake hands with our Consul General, eat delicious snacks, hear some live music, and appreciate American independence. I take notes on what I need to take notes on, and dash out early because I have an applicant coming back to my window because they forgot to bring me a certain important document, and I’d like to get them on their way.

This whole day sees me keeping a very careful eye on my email. It’s bidding season. Last week I turned in a ranked list of 30 posts that I would like to serve at when our time in Juarez is finished in 13 months. There are hundreds of us all over the world who turned in this list, and are anxiously waiting to hear whether we will be sent to Argentina, Azerbaijan, Zanzibar, Zimbabwe, or somewhere in between. There are rumors going around that today is the day when someone somewhere in Washington will push a button sending an email that will tell us our fate, but so far no email. I’ll check again in a minute.

We are closing early today because we are having a “hail and farewell” party. We do this a few times a year to welcome newly arrived officers and their families, and to bid a fond farewell to those who will soon be leaving us. I stand under the tent, next to my beautiful wife, listening to the CG read the names of those who will be leaving during the upcoming summer transfer season. These are the colleagues who got that email that I’m waiting for about a year ago. They’ve known their destination, and in the next few months they’ll be leaving here, and scattering to the four winds. The people I was at the windows with this morning will soon be all over Europe, Central America, Asia, etc. etc. I have been at this job for less than a year. I feel new. But I look around, and realize that I have been here longer than half of the people who are now here, and that those who have been here longer than me will soon be gone. It’s a bittersweet feeling. I gladly welcome the new people who constantly come in, just as K and I were welcomed when we came. Still, the goodbyes are hard.

The truth is that in the Foreign Service your colleagues are more than your colleagues. Yes, they are your bosses and coworkers who you need to find a way to get along with at the office so that you can do the job the taxpayers are paying and housing you to do. But they are also the people who come to your baby shower to celebrate with you. They’re the ones who make you dinner when they know you’ve had a tough week. They watch your kids, and you watch theirs. They are your neighbors who you greet when you walk your dog down the street. The people you see at church. They are the ones who help you cope with the stress of the job, by allowing you to vent or by telling a well aimed joke. They’re the people who you are in the trenches with Monday through Friday, and whose company you then enjoy immensely at a cookout over the weekend. I listen to the names of people who are leaving, and struggle to imagine what this place and this work will be like without them. But then I look around, and think of the people who’ve been here just a short time and have already woven themselves into the life of this community. I can’t imagine this place without them, either. All of us will leave. None of us can be replaced. But new people will come, and the community will continue to be a source of strength. This is the beautiful mystery of this lifestyle.

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The speech ends, and we find a spot in the shade to sit with close friends, enjoy some tacos and cold beverages, and watch the army of little kids splashing in a wading pool after having gotten their faces painted. A group of musically inclined officers started a band some months ago, and they rock the party. We end the week with food, music, and friends. It’s perfect.

We go home, and K settles into her favorite spot on the couch to watch Dateline as I sit down to write. The dog protectively cuddles against K’s growing belly. I contemplate the life that is growing inside of her. In just a few weeks there will be a third person in this house. I guess he’s here already, but he’ll be present in a new way, breathing air and exploring the world. I think about what it will be like to share this life with him and the things we encounter in it. The honor of serving. The struggle of seeking to do justice in and through my work. The beauty of the world. The joy of friends. The bittersweet struggle of constant transition. I wonder what he will make of it all. I can’t wait to find out.

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