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!


Regarding what makes a house a home…

In the course of a day our house has been transformed. It was a welcoming place, with  familiar books on the shelves and pictures of relatives on the end tables. There was a Pakistani rug on the floor, and Dominican painted tiles on the walls. We had an Afghan blanket hanging on the wall, and an Italian vase on a window sill, both wedding gifts. In the past few months our collection of baby toys has grown considerably, and those toys have found their way to every corner of the house as their owner’s throwing arm has improved.

Yesterday it was all packed away. All the books, rugs, paintings, photos, vases, and most of the toys went into boxes and onto a big truck. Some of it will meet us in Washington, but most of it will stay wrapped up until it arrives to meet us in Riyadh after maybe a year and a half. The house is empty now. The white walls are blank. There’s a new echo to the house as there are no carpets or curtains to absorb the sound. It doesn’t quite feel like the same place.

A house is different from a home. A house is walls, doors, a roof, and floors. A home is harder to define. It’s a place where our experiences find life. A place soaked in meaning. It’s the pictures on the walls, the games in the cupboard, the food on the table, and the people who you share it all with. Home is the experience that happens in the house.

This house has been a good home to us. Under this roof we have shared meals with many beloved friends. We’ve had parties. We have rested away the exhaustion of long days at the visa window. We have learned how to be parents. And JJ has never lived anywhere else.

Watching the physical symbols of home go into boxes is a melancholy experience. It means we are leaving soon. But we also know that home is not our stuff. Home, for our family, is finding love and belonging in all of the new places that we are blessed to experience. This summer we will rest with friends and family in many places where we have known home before, and where we can still taste it. And in the coming months and year we will find home in new places, just as we have before.

It’s a little scary. I fear that maybe this time will be different. Maybe it won’t work out quite as well. Will I be able to learn Arabic? Will I stink at my job? Will I make any friends? Change brings doubt.

But for me, home is wherever I find the beautiful woman, the growing baby, and the neurotic chihuahua with whom I am sharing this empty house for the next few weeks. With them around I know it will all work out, and for that I am thankful.

Regarding others who serve…

My first tour of duty as a Foreign Service Officer is almost over, and I can confidently say that I know a lot now that I didn’t know when I got started. My Spanish is a bit sharper. I can talk your ear off about immigration law (which I promise not to do in this post). I know that chile de arbol is not something to be eaten on a whim. I’ve begun to appreciate the ins and outs of the complexities of this large organization for which I work. I’ve learned how to put together an itinerary for the Principal Officer, and how to get a dozen people in as many offices to “clear” on a cable that I want to send out. Some of these lessons will stick with me for a long time, and others will no doubt have to be relearned (chile de arbol always looks so good on the plate).

But among the most wonderful things that I have come to appreciate in the past two years is the critical role played by our locally employed colleagues in our work and communities overseas. I’ve written a fair amount about what it is like to be a part of the large, diverse, quirky family of American Foreign Service Officers, spouses, and kids that spans the globe, hops from country to country, always saying hello and goodbye to each other. The uninitiated might have the impression that everyone at my office is an American Foreign Service Officer. How untrue that is!

The vast majority of employees who work at the Consulate here in Ciudad Juarez (and at just about every post globally) are local folks. They are Mexicans, most born and raised right here in Juarez. We Americans are a minority at work, despite the fact that it is the U.S. Consulate. And our Mexican colleagues do a vast quantity of the work that keeps us running every day. They provide security to the Consulate compound, and in our residential communities. If something breaks at our house they come around to fix it. Our Mexican colleagues input the visa cases into the computer, wrangle the documents that I need to make a visa decision, and print up the final product. If I make a mistake, or get lost on how a certain part of the law works (a common occurrence), it is most likely one of our immensely qualified and experienced Mexican colleagues who helps me to find a solution. We have Mexican analysts who investigate our particularly challenging cases, and provide us with detailed information to bring the case to resolution. When I went on TV to talk about visas I had a locally employed friend and colleague sitting right there with me to help answer questions from the fast talking reporter.

In other parts of the building our Mexican colleagues are working to cultivate a strong relationship between our Consulate and local media, businesses, and other organizations. Our Mexican management team makes sure the rent is paid on our houses, and that the lights and water and computer network in the building keeps working. And to see that this massive team of people all get their paychecks every two weeks. There’s a fantastic team of Mexican cooks in the cafeteria who keep us very well fed. This Consulate is a massive operation, and it runs primarily on Mexican power, with English and Spanish being swapped out and traded for one another at a pace that I imagine is frustrating for the monolingual.

It’s easy to take this environment for granted after one has been here for a few months, but every so often something happens that reminds me how remarkable this all is. Just this week, for example, we had a retirement party. A gentleman by the name of Alex, who is one of just a few locally employed supervisors, finished up 29 years of work for our Consulate and will now get some well deserved rest. He began his career taking documents from applicants at a window and putting together files. He finishes up as the boss of more than 20 people, overseeing much of the work in one of the busiest visa sections in the world, reporting to and trusted by the unit chiefs (officers). If something is broken, he’s the guy who knows how to fix it. He has worked under six U.S. Presidents, at least a dozen Consuls General, and goodness knows how many American supervisors. He has had a direct impact on the smooth adjudication of millions of visas. This man is a giant of experience, and an example of service.

During his farewell ceremony he gave a very gracious speech. He talked about how as a young man he remembers walking past the old U.S. Consulate building in downtown Juarez, and dreaming of getting a job there. He shared how glad he was that it had come to pass. Other speeches were given. His colleagues praised his warmth and wisdom. A statement from the Ambassador was read, praising his service and accomplishments. He was honored with plaques, gifts, and applause. It was made known that his service was appreciated.

We talk often about those who serve their country, and rightly so. There are many who forego the comforts of a life at home, proximity to family, higher paychecks, and even safety in order to uphold the law, protect our national interest, and generally be of service. But we don’t often talk about those from other countries who serve OUR country, sometimes making the same sacrifices and face the same risks that we do. I have Mexican friends and colleagues who have done jobs at U.S. Embassies in Kabul and Baghdad.

The lesson that hit me full on in the face this week, and that I hope to carry with me throughout my career, is that there are many of us who serve, and many who deserve recognition. Yes, we the Officers do a service. But so do our partners and kids, who face the challenges of life abroad and open a window to American culture to our friends and neighbors. And so do our locally employed colleagues, who support us in our work, and provide expertise and muscle that we would be lost without. There are many who serve the United States in many different ways, and we aren’t all Americans. I hope that I am able to remember and honor this fact as I move forward in my career.

And perhaps the most beautiful thing that grows out of this is the friendships. I will be very sad to leave this Consulate, possibly for the last time, in three weeks. Not necessarily because I will miss the work (there’s always more), or my fellow officers (I’ll see most again), or the food (Mexico is a short plane ride away). I will mostly miss this big beautiful group of Mexicans who started off as just people at the office, but who have ended up as people who I joke around with, talk about life and kids with, banter with on facebook, share birthday cake with, enjoy parties with. They have ended up as friends, and that will make the leaving all the harder.


Regarding the last bottle of hot sauce…

Our time in Juarez is nearing an end. In 37 days we will close the book on this tour. That’s about 24 more days of work. Five more Saturdays. Maybe a thousand more visa interviews conducted. Fewer than 100 more tacos to eat. The countdown is on, and moving fast.

The mathematics of departure hit me in an unexpected way this week. I was cooking scrambled eggs, as I do every morning. I cut the veggies, heated the pan, scrambled the eggs, and whisked in a dash of Salsa Valentina, for a little flavor. I love this sauce. It is ubiquitous in this part of Mexico as Heinz Ketchup is back home. It’s in every grocery store, and on the table at lots of restaurants. Its uses are many. I’ve had it on tacos, in eggs, on potato chips at sporting events, and even in my beer at a fancy restaurant. Some of my Mexican colleagues keep bottles of Valentina at their desks to drizzle on their lunch. Valentina is just a part of life here, and it has occupied a place in our fridge ever since we arrived.

And it hit me, as I scrambled my eggs, that this is my last bottle of Valentina in Mexico. I won’t eat enough of it in the next 37 days to merit buying another one. This bottle might travel in the cooler in the car (if CBP lets it past), a nostalgic reminder of the borderland, until it ends its life in a recycling bin somewhere. It makes me feel a bit sad.

There are so many last things when you move away from a place. Last day at work or school. Last lunch with that special friend. Last time at a favorite park, or restaurant, or market. We sometimes notice when we are doing these last things, and mark the occasions with appropriate grief, or reflection, or maybe happiness if it is something we are glad to leave behind. But more often we don’t even know that we are doing something for the last time. I had no idea that I was buying my last bottle of Valentina when I took it off the shelf a few weeks ago. I just did it like it was a normal thing. It makes me wonder what other last things I have done without noticing. And what others will come to pass.

I am sad to leave Juarez. There are many places and people who I will miss deeply as we move onto the next adventure. We have made amazing friends here. We have eaten fantastic meals. We’ve worked hard, and found meaning in that work. We have added to our numbers as we welcomed little J into the world, and adopted Luci the chihuahua from Chihuahua. Our time in Juarez has been special, and watching it end is not easy.

We could say that every ending leads to a new beginning, which of course is true. But that doesn’t make the endings any easier.

So I intend to experience these next few weeks reflectively and deliberately, like the conclusion to a good book or movie. A pleasant denouement that allows me to treasure what has been good here. There is a lot of work to be done as I clean out my desk and as we pack up the house, but I will pause to enjoy the taste of that hot sauce, and those tacos. I will contemplate the oven-hot wind that blows on my face as I dodge pot holes on my bicycle. I will enjoy time with my Foreign Service friends, treasuring the fact that we share parallel journeys to different destinations, and eagerly anticipating the growth of these friendships, despite the oceans that will soon separate us. I will appreciate time with Mexican friends and colleagues, enjoying the warmth of the conversation, and the jokes in Spanish (that I understand a little bit better all the time). I will think about the visa applicants, and the lessons they teach me about the deep and wonderful connections between these two great countries. The next chapter will begin soon enough, but I plan to enjoy this one until the last letter in the last paragraph.


Regarding Memorial Day

My earliest memories of the holiday we observe this weekend are set in Winchendon, Massachusetts. My sisters and parents and I would get together with my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and second cousins. We went to Great Aunt Jean’s house for a big cookout. Hot dogs on the grill. Baked beans. Watermelon. It was a day for family, food, and fun.

There were reminders of other reasons that the day was important. Across the street from Aunt Jean’s house was a park, and in that park was a tall pillar with a statue on top of it. On the morning of Memorial Day a column of bent old men in uniforms covered with badges would march across the park, form up around the pillar, and fire rifles into the air after a long moment of silence. I didn’t understand what it all meant. At age six I knew it had something to do with a war, but there was watermelon to eat and cousins to play with. I didn’t spare much thought for the ceremony.

As I grew older I learned more about Memorial Day. I learned that it originated after the Civil War, when our country needed a way to collectively grieve the generation of young men who never returned home from the battlefield. I learned that those old men in the park were veterans of two world wars, and that they marched and fired their rifles in honor of friends who never came home from Europe, or North Africa, or the Pacific. I became friends with men and women who fought in wars, and lost friends. The more of the world I saw the less abstract the celebration became.

This year I have just finished reading a book that continues to break down the wall of abstraction surrounding what Memorial Day means. “The Dust of Kandahar: A Diplomat Among Warriors” is the journal that Ambassador Jonathan Addleton kept during his yearlong posting in Kandahar, Afghanistan. He was senior civilian representative for the U.S. Embassy in Southern Afghanistan, living on base, working closely with military commanders, and traveling around the region on helicopters to meet with contacts.

Ambassador Addleton writes vividly and engagingly, communicating the frustration of working in Afghanistan at that time, the loneliness of being thousands of miles from family, the camaraderie and community that is found in unexpected places, and the general ugliness of war. He reports standing for countless ramp ceremonies, watching as the remains of young service members are carried onto a plane to begin their long journey home. He shares their names, and what he learns of their lives cut short and families left behind. He brings a three dimensional reality to the headlines we all read, of soldiers, airmen, and marines killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. He poignantly reminds us that the lost are more than names printed on a page or carved on a wall. They are men and women with hopes and dreams, spouses and kids, likes and dislikes, and that their journeys have now come to a sudden and violent end.

This exploration of the tragedy of war takes a sharp turn to the personal when he describes the horrific events he experienced on April 6, 2013. He describes how his convoy is en route to deliver books to a school, and how they are hit by a car bomb. Ambassador Addleton survives, but his translator Nasemi, Foreign Service Officer Anne Smedinghoff, Staff Sergeant Christopher Ward, Sergeant Delfin Santos, and Corporal Wilbel Robles-Santa do not. The reader feels the terror of the moment. The confusion and shock that Addleton feels as he processes what has happened in the hours and days that follow. The deep grief that sets in and colors his remaining months in Afghanistan. His words are breathtakingly honest, and at times painful to read, as he wrestles with what has happened.

Our observations of Memorial Day are often filled with the images and stories of increasingly distant conflicts. The Civil War. The World Wars. Korea. Vietnam. This book reminds us that war, and the tragedy it brings, are far from distant memories. Men and women have paid the highest price that service can ask of anyone, and they have paid it recently and painfully. This book helps us to remember them.

This book also helps us to understand that war robs life from many kinds of people. Yes, there are the tragic losses of those in uniform. But there are also the losses of those who did not wear uniforms or carry guns, but who also paid the ultimate cost for their work. Indeed, there are two walls in the lobby of the State Department bearing the names of 248 of my colleagues, including Anne Smedinghoff, who never got to come home.

Image result for state department memorial wall

There are also the survivors, who come home bearing the often invisible scars of their experiences. They have heard the explosions, smelt the smoke, and held the hands of the dying. They have been forced to ask questions that most of us will never have to, and paid a price that is difficult to understand.

So as we enjoy a long weekend soaked in the early summer sunshine, let us spare a moment or two for memory. For those killed, both those wearing uniform as well as civilians. For those who return home, but bear the at times unbearable weight of memory of the horrors they have witnessed and the colleagues they have lost. Let us not forget them. And let us enjoy our hot dogs and watermelon, as they would surely want us to.

P.S. I think “Dust of Kandahar” is an important read, both for my Foreign Service colleagues who have served in Afghanistan and those who are thinking about serving PSP, as well as for anyone who is interested in learning more about what America’s work in the world looks like on the ground. I can’t praise this book highly enough.