In which I give Thanks for the silly things…

K and I lost a pregnancy in 2014, and experienced a time of deep sadness. Some days were really hard. We invented a small activity that helped keep us going on the tough days. We called it “5 things.” We would take turns naming off things and people that we were thankful for, until each of us had named five things. It was a simple exercise that brought perspective. We forced ourselves to think about what we were thankful for, even when we didn’t feel particularly thankful for much of anything. Sometimes it helped us feel better. Sometimes it didn’t. But it always helped us to feel closer to each other.

I imagine America must have felt a little bit like that back in 1863 when Abraham Lincoln resurrected the practice of a National Day of Thanksgiving. The Civil War was raging. Hundreds of thousands of Americans had been killed on battlefields all across the country. Every day the newspapers brought the names of more who had fallen. There was no end in sight. I imagine it didn’t feel like there was much to give thanks for. But I also like to think that the exercise of giving thanks forced them to look beyond the oppressive fear in the present, toward something bigger, and grander, and more beautiful. It helped them to pull together, and keep going. That’s why we’ve continued to celebrate it as a nation, regardless of politics or creed, through war, peace, famine, plenty, etc.

K and I have had a wonderful year. There’s a new baby. Our health is good. We love our work, and our friends, and our families, and they seem to love us back. There are challenges, fears, and uncertainties. We hurt for friends and family who are ill, or who are bearing the illness of a loved one. We grieve for lands ravaged by war, and the refugees who are without a home. We ache for the divisions we see in America.

So in the spirit of this holiday, I offer you five things for which I found myself giving thanks this week. They are not the usual things for which one gives thanks, but I found inspiration in them, and perhaps you will as well.

  1. I am thankful for poop-filled diapers. Changing diapers is for me, as for many newly minted parents, a new and not altogether pleasant experience. I won’t go into great detail. I realized today, though, that the presence of poop in the diaper means that the digestive tract is working. The baby is healthy, and growing.20161120_185547
  2.  I am thankful for the giant bull elk that surprised me on a recent weekend trip to New Mexico. It must have been nine feet tall. I was fetching something from the car, not paying much attention, and I looked up and there it was. It made me feel small, and a little bit afraid. The adrenaline rush reminded me of the raw beauty and majesty of the natural world, and of forces that are far beyond my understanding.

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  3. I am thankful for burnt pumpkin pie (though the guests at the potluck we are attending later today might be less thankful). I had never baked a pumpkin pie before tonight, and I foolishly blazed ahead, following some of the directions on the back of the can while improvising the parts I thought less important. I poured too much liquid into the crusts, not anticipating the bubbling, burning, smoking mess that would ensue when I put them in the oven. I am thankful for the reminder that I still have much to learn, and I am thankful for a wife who laughs at my foolishness in lieu of scolding me.20161123_192625
  4. I’m thankful for my ancestor, John Howland, who took a tumble off the back of the Mayflower during a storm in 1620. Myself and my whole family would never have existed had someone not left a rope hanging overboard that allowed John Howland to pull himself in from the surf. I’m thankful for the reminder that small actions (or inactions) can have big consequences, for good or ill, even if we never see them. And I’m thankful for the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving Special that features Mr. Howland; for reminding me of this story every year.
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  5. I’m thankful for old episodes of the West Wing…still my favorite TV show, despite the datedness and cheesiness of it all. I’m thankful for writers who eloquently and shamelessly praised the virtues of public service, and played a small part in inspiring a whole generation of us to go work in government. I’m thankful that I still find inspiration there, and that my wife still sometimes watches it with me, even though she falls asleep on the couch.a369b95dd5dcdfc4045162e20adb6c28

So there are my five things. They may be silly or trivial, but they are true. They are gifts I have been given, by the grace of God, over which I had no control. Ultimately that is what this holiday is about. Acknowledging that we are who we are and we have what we have because of forces far beyond our own power or comprehension. I wish the happiest of Thanksgivings to you and yours, and pray that you may find and appreciate the grace you have been shown, regardless of how silly it may seem.

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Regarding what comes next…

I’ve been getting a lot of questions from friends and relatives regarding what life as a diplomat is going to look like in light of the unexpected results of the election last week. What will be different now that we will be serving President Trump rather than President Obama? The short (and perhaps boring) answer is “not much.”

My colleagues and I will continue to go to work at the Consulate every day, as will our colleagues at Embassies and Consulates in every corner of the world. We’ll continue to walk in past the American flag flying high, past the great seal of the eagle with the words “Epluribus Unum,” past the marine guarding the door, to our desks, where we will each work our tails off to “protect and defend the Constitution of the United States,” as each of us swore to do when we entered the job. The pictures in the lobby of the President, Vice President, and Secretary of State will change, but that has happened before, and it will happen again.

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There is no doubt that as laws and priorities change so too will the way we implement those laws and priorities. The U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juarez is the biggest Immigrant Visa issuing post in the world, so Immigration Reform would surely change our work. But that is sort of the point of what we do. We, as employees of the federal government, are not (nor should we be) policy makers. You, the American people, choose your leaders. Those leaders make the laws. We are the public servants who implement and apply those laws. Ultimately we serve you, the people.

All of us federal employees certainly have opinions on what we see happening in American politics (I’m happy to share mine with you privately if you are interested), but we can’t let that get in the way of how we do our jobs. We are sworn to defend the constitution, and the constitution says that the President is the head of the Executive branch (therefore our boss). All of us will almost certainly have to implement policies put forth by Presidents for whom we did not vote, and that’s okay. Because ultimately the system that is our democratic republic (laid out in the constitution) matters much more than does our opinion of any single leader. It’s a system that calls for We The People to determine who is in power, and for power to be passed from one leader to the next without a single shot being fired. It’s a system that has held up for 240 years (with a brief break in the 1860s). It’s a system that has been an example to other countries who are hoping to move beyond feudal forms of government where transition does not happen without bloodshed. Think how remarkable it is that we can see power pass between two leaders as radically different as President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama completely peacefully. I hope that the transition from President Obama to President Trump is equally peaceful, as well as for the transition between President Trump and whoever follows him.

The tone was set for us as employees first thing on Wednesday morning in a message from Secretary Kerry, part of which I’ve included below. Our job is to keep on with the work of serving and protecting the interests of the American people in the world. I assure you that we will do it, and do it well, regardless of the circumstances.

“Now that the Presidential election is over and the voters have spoken, I ask you to focus on two imperatives simultaneously. The first is to continue moving ahead with all the activities and projects on which you are currently engaged. The pace of events across the globe does not allow for timeouts. Our goal should be to continue pushing every aspect of our foreign policy forward between now and when the new leadership team takes office.

The second imperative is related to the first: to welcome our incoming colleagues warmly and professionally and to provide them with all the assistance they need to ensure a seamless transition from one administration to the next.

Let us all remember that the value of American democracy is reflected in the ability of our citizens to debate policy openly and choose their leaders freely. That tradition dates back to the very founding of our country and remains an example of immeasurable consequence to people across the globe, many of whom do not enjoy such freedoms. I am proud of the role that the State Department plays in respecting, supporting, and advocating the integrity of our process and in representing abroad the values and interests of the American people.”
-John Kerry, U.S. Secretary of State