Regarding the Oaks of New Orleans…

The neighborhoods and parks of New Orleans are filled with oak trees like I have never seen. Twisted, hulking, green giants that block the hot sun and create whimsical tunnels through which to drive and walk. Some of them are thought to be more than 500 years old. Maybe it’s just us, since we haven’t seen big trees in about two years, but we found ourselves mesmerized by these oaks. I couldn’t stop taking pictures of them, and I can’t stop thinking about them.

The character of New Orleans is a lot like these trees. It’s a unique, compelling, beautiful, and old place that draws one in. The tree lined boulevards. The stately houses with stained glass windows, giant porches, and picturesque gardens. The people, with their southern drawl and cheerful hospitality. The spicy, saucy, flavorful, and abundant food. Heavenly beignets, fluffy as a pillow on the inside and delightfully crispy on the outside, covered in powdered sugar that leaves itself on your face and shirt. The music is loud, brassy, joyful, and seemingly everywhere. This is a place with character. A charming, interesting place where it’s a pleasure to spend time.  This city is hypnotizing and beautiful, just like the oak trees.

But these trees did not become what they are overnight, or without pain. Hot summers and cold winters sped and slowed growth. Windstorms caused branches to snap and twist. Erosion and floods caused roots to move, and trunks to stand crooked. Lightning strikes or fires may have stunted growth. To ignore the trauma is to not fully appreciate what these trees are.

In the same way, there is much about this city that cannot be disregarded or painted over. Slavery and cotton were king here, providing the wealth that built the houses. Jim Crow ruled long and strong. Poverty and inequality remain common. Streets and buildings are scarred from hurricanes more than a decade gone. There are people without homes, and people being forced from their homes by the persistent march of gentrification. Bourbon Street, that dream destination of many a gleeful college student, strikes me as a brightly colored and foul smelling retreat for the broken. There is pain here. A past and present that are troubled.

America is a lot like New Orleans. Our past and present are full of ugly things, many of which those of us in positions of privilege would like to ignore. It’s easy enough for me to treat colonialism, slavery, and the genocide of native people groups like the unpleasant chapters of a story book that is not terribly relevant to me. They happened a long time ago, and I was no part of it. But these things, awful as they are, remain inextricable chapters in the history of this country. If I choose to own this country as my own (which I do) I must choose to own the sins of our past.

This can be hard for us white people to do. It’s so easy for us to state that we never owned a slave, or stole land from another people group, or voted for laws that denied others their basic rights, and then just go back to our lives. And we would be telling the truth. We are not personally culpable for the sins of our forebears. We do, however, sit atop the mountain of privilege that their misdeeds constructed for us, and we benefit from what they did. We live in the house they built, and we are now responsible for it. We also bear witness to the echoes of their sins, as so many of the struggles we face as a nation today are rooted in the decisions of the past. The Bible talks about God punishing children for the sins of their fathers, to the third and fourth generation. Many read this as the outworking of petulant anger by a small and vindictive God. I’ve come to see it differently. I think the writers of Scripture understood that the societal sins of one generation don’t just melt into history. When you cut down all the trees your kids won’t have any soil in which to grow their food. When you dump toxic waste into the soil your grand kids will get sick. When you choose to enslave an entire race, your great grand kids will die in a Civil War, and their great grand kids (and the great grand kids of the people you enslaved) will still struggle to mend the inequality that you planted. Actions have consequences, across time and across generations. God is not being vindictive. He is explaining the consequences of the choices that we make.

What am I to make of this world when my ancestors have hashed it up so badly? Again I return to these trees. Hundreds of years ago someone saw that there was a street or a path in this city, and they planted a row of acorns, and they tended to the saplings. Their forethought and work has given me a shaded place to walk, a home for birds, and a brilliant display of beauty. They didn’t benefit from these trees, but centuries later I do. The beautiful thing about the world is that sins are not all that echo across time. Good deeds do as well. Amazing things can happen when we choose to break the cycle of destruction, in big ways and small. We plant trees. We play music. We mentor children. We build useful things that will outlast us. We cannot undo the darkness in our past, but by acknowledging it and planting for tomorrow perhaps we can see to it that our kids, and their kids, inherit something better.

New Orleans, home of the blues, a glorious American art form that brings the joy of music together with the frustrating realities of life, is a place where we see all of this. The unhealed wounds of the past are on full display, as is an infectious atmosphere of joy and celebration in the present. May that joy in the present ease the pain of the past, and move us toward a green, tree shaded future full of music, friends, and amazing pastry.


Regarding the last day in Mexico

We left Mexico yesterday morning, and drove nearly all the way across Texas. The desert gradually receded, brown turning to green, and dry heat turning to humidity the further East we moved. The landscape around us is now totally different, but the memories are fresh.

I think back to two days ago when I did the same things I have nearly every day for two years. I can still see it all. I drive through the neighborhood, quiet except for the cackle of the grackles bathing in the puddles left by the sprinkler, past the man selling hot, tasty burritos from the trunk of his car, through the back gate of the Consulate, where the guards check underneath my car with a tool resembling a giant dentist’s mirror.

I am not early enough to get a shaded parking spot, so I know that the car will be an oven when I come back, but that’s okay. I walk through the gate and up the walkway to the front door, and I’m already overwhelmed by memories. Here is the front lawn where we bring our dog to run on the weekends, and pick on the other dogs (usually bigger) during our monthly “yappy hour.” There’s the great seal by the front door, site of so many group pictures, including one with the Ambassador when she came to visit a year ago.

I walk into the lobby, past the Marine behind the glass, and into the largest visa section in the world. I will not be conducting interviews today, but everyone else is. On every side I see our army of Locally Employed Staff and Officers running to and fro, pushing carts of case files to where they need to be. Rain or shine, the work of facilitating legitimate travel continues. 

I remember how overwhelming this humming machine of an office felt when I first arrived. So many strangers, doing so many mysterious tasks that I did not understand. But now the strangers have names that I know, and I have memories of good work done together in a constant and beautiful mix of English and Spanish. There’s Angel, who I went on an outreach trip with. Here’s Miriam, who I worked with to fix a hundred visas that were printed with an error. There’s Ana, who helps me pick apart complicated investor visa cases. A hundred locally employed colleagues and a thousand memories to go with them.

I sit at my desk, finishing last minute admin stuff before shipping out tomorrow. I listen to my colleagues interviewing applicants for Non-Immigrant Visas and I think about this work that I will likely not do again in my Diplomatic career. How fascinating to serve a country that both desires the safety of it’s citizens, but that also creates so many avenues for people to visit legitimately. Every day we issue visas to people seeking to visit their relatives in the U.S., employees hired by American companies and getting their big break, college kids making a go of it at an American school, entrepreneurs trying to make a business work. It’s all very exciting, and the memories, again, are thick. 

I’ve learned a lot from this work. A colleague of mine once said that working on Immigrant visas teaches you a lot about the law, but that working on Non-Immigrant visas teaches you about Mexico (or whichever country you do it in). I think she’s right. We do up to a hundred interviews a day each, and that hundred usually represents a good cross section of Mexican society. The elderly farmer, living off the land. His son, who works on the line in a factory, saving to put his kids through school. His kids, working to be architects and doctors. A society on the move, with economic mobility in its DNA. The musicians and artists. The border commuters who’ve had visas their whole lives, whose family and work exists on both sides of this artificial boundary bisecting the landscape. Mexico, and the border, are fascinating. And that story comes to the window every day.

At lunch time I slip home to say goodbye to our nanny/housekeeper. She’s been a wonderful presence in our family these last months, loving J well when K worked, and giving us a great window into the community as we got to know her and her family. It’s a tough goodbye.

As the day winds down I take one last walk from one side of the office to the other. I say many goodbyes, lots of hugs, a few tears. Most of the officers who are here now arrived after I did. Turnover happens fast. I think of those who were here when I arrived and have now been scattered to the winds, landing in France, England, Japan, China, Ghana, Honduras, Croatia, and so many other places. Yesterday they were here. Today they are a memory. Tomorrow I will be a memory. But the work will go on. I see the enthusiasm of my colleagues who are new here, and I do not worry for the future.

I head for the door, turn in my badge to the Marine, and I’m finished at the Consulate. I go home, pick up K and J, and we go for one last round of tacos with a special group of friends. We retell old stories. We laugh and cry. They hold the baby, who was still yet to come when most of us met. We make plans to meet again. In the Foreign Service life these plans are often little more than a pleasantry, unlikely to come to fruition. But with these friends I believe it will happen.

We go home, pack the car (it all fit!), and go to bed.

Now we are driving. Juarez is behind us Ahead is Riyadh, and much more. A hard Texas rain falls, forcing me to put the wipers on high. I watch as the thick dust of Juarez that cakes the hood of our car is slowly rinsed away by the rain. New things will come our way, but I hope that the memories of this first tour, doing good work in a great place with incredible people, stick.

Regarding Patriotism…

Our church had a 4th of July themed service this weekend. The singing included “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “God Bless America,” and the grand climax was a fervent delivery of “Proud to be an American,” which the Texas congregation sang with more gusto than I’ve ever heard them give to any of the usual worship songs. An usher was wearing a shirt that was printed like an American flag. We watched a flashy video featuring flags, eagles, soldiers, and Mount Rushmore that told us how much God favored our country and how we are one Nation Under God. The pastor offered what I’m sure were sincere prayers for our leaders. It felt a bit like we were bumping up against a violation of the first commandment, but I digress on that point for now.

The service was soaked in patriotism, but it struck me as a shallow patriotism. The sort that praises things like freedom and liberty without actually having a sense of what those words, or their opposites, actually mean. It’s an arrogant patriotism that ignores our faults as a nation, and enthrones us as God’s chosen ones. It’s the sort of patriotism that we trot out to make ourselves feel bigger and better than others. Others who are not so ‘blessed’ as we are in their nationality.

This sort of patriotism reminds me of a little kid who is genuinely convinced that his dad is the biggest and strongest and smartest and best person in the world, and who goes around telling all the other kids that his dad is better than theirs. Most of us felt this way about our parents when we were little kids, and reasonably so. We love and admire our parents deeply, so our young minds cause us to view them through rose colored glasses. They can do no wrong. But we grow up, and the glasses don’t fit quite the same way. We start to understand that our parents (like all parents) are far from perfect. They have flaws and weaknesses. They make mistakes. And those mistakes, especially in our teenage years, tick us off.

So it has been with me and America. I grew up watching the fireworks on the 4th of July, viewing George Washington as a superman like figure, watching the original Dream Team kick butt in the 1992 Olympics, and generally knowing that America was the greatest country on earth. Period.

But as I grew I began to read, and explore, and travel. I learned of the millions of slaves who worked and died to generate this country’s early wealth. I learned of the countless Native People groups who were driven from their homes at the point of a gun. The immigrants who were forced to labor long hours in sweatshops. The women and minorities who for so long were denied the rights promised them in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution.

I also became aware of injustices that still plague our country. I learned that my black and Latino friends experience America much differently than I do. I learned that we are quick to trash our environment if it means saving a few bucks at the pump. I learned that being born into a poor community basically scuttles your chances of rising up economically. America didn’t seem so wonderful to me anymore. And I was ticked, just like a teenager who discovers that his parents are flawed people.

But most of those teenagers, as they mature, choose to love their parents anyway. It’s not the blindly loyal admiration of a young child, but a choice based on shared experiences and an appreciation for who those parents are despite their flaws.
So also has it been with me and America. While I found much to criticize I have also found much to admire. Each injustice of the past and present has called forth a legion of heroes to stand up and demand what is right. I love that my country has given the world figures like Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Abraham Lincoln, Chief Joseph, John Muir, Jane Addams, John Steinbeck, Martin Luther King, and so many others who used and use their God given talents to make the world a bit better for the rest of us.

I admire the American salad bowl of cultures, and how everything from our speech to our music to our food has been shaped and colored by the different groups who have made a home here. I love the American landscape, from the tall cacti and deep canyons of the Southwest to the rugged lake shore and ancient pines of Northern Michigan. Though none of it is quite as beautiful to me as the rolling countryside and creek carved valleys of Southern Wisconsin.

I love our American way of government; our firmly held belief that the people decide who govern them, and that transitions of power, even dramatic ones, transpire without blood being shed. I love that the buildings where the work of government takes place, from the U.S. Capitol down to the public library in Milwaukee, used to be built with a certain grandeur, letting visitors know that the work done in this building, the people’s work, matters.

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Milwaukee Public Library

I love that so many men and women I’ve known, community organizers, elected officials, members of the armed services, Foreign Service Officers, citizens, are willing to give time and sacrifice income to serve their neighbors.

I love singing the National anthem at the beginning of the ballgame. I love coming home after a long trip abroad. I agree with Garrison Keillor who says that there is no pleasure quite as great as that which comes from expressing your patriotism in a foreign language. I count it an honor to represent my country abroad, despite her warts and flaws.

What bothers me so much about the half-baked shallow patriotism that is so often on display at this time of year is the way we use superlatives when expressing it. “America is the GREATEST nation on earth.” “America is uniquely favored by God.” “America is #1.” The (usually) unspoken message there is that other countries are not quite as worthy of the love of their citizens. That the love that other people feel for their countries is not quite as genuine as what we feel. That we are better than them. It’s the arrogance of a five year old child telling the other kids on the playground that his dad is better than theirs. We come across as jerks. And I don’t have time for it.

The thrill I feel at the playing of “Stars and Stripes Forever” is the same thrill felt by others who shout “Viva Mexico!,” or “Pakistan Zindabad!” or at the playing of “Oh, Canada,” and “God Save the Queen.” It’s a big, beautiful world, and every nation, like every family, has much to be proud of. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

I think that’s why I like the Olympic opening ceremonies so much. To see just about every nation in the world standing tall, showing their pride, and not doing so at one another’s expense is just wonderful. It reminds me of the picture we see in Revelation 7, when at the end of time there is “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” It’s a picture of unity and diversity co-existing. That’s how the world is meant to be.
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So this year I will proudly go to the 4th of July parties. I will spend moments reflecting on the brave ideas expressed in articulate calligraphy by Jefferson and company from that Philadelphia state house some 241 years. I will eat a hot dog. I will quietly pray repentance for our sins as a nation, and pray for wisdom going forward. I love my country. But I will try to stay far away from arrogance, recognizing that patriotism is a great thing when we aren’t jerks about it. Happy 4th, everyone!