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.

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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.

Regarding Road Trips…

I am on the road again. I look across the vast Chihuahuan desert plain that surrounds the highway. The view of the distant mountains is warped ever so slightly by the thickness of the bullet proof glass through which I look. Two days of travel. 460 miles from Juarez to the State Capital and back again. Me and a driver in an armored Chevy Suburban. Three work meetings. One public presentation on visa procedures. Three excellent meals. One very comfortable hotel. It’s a work trip, like so many others I have been on over the years, yet also very different.

In the Peace Corps I would truck across the Dominican Republic however I could (buses, hitchhiking, regular hiking, motorcycle taxis) to meet with other volunteers, give presentations, or work on projects. I would sleep wherever I could afford. Guest rooms. Foam mattresses on floors under mosquito netting. Public rooms in hostels, with six other guys, under a squeaky fan, taking Benadryl to sleep when the heat became unbearable. I would eat what I could find, be it roadside fried chicken or home cooked beans and rice. Schedules were flexible. Sometimes meetings would happen three days late. Sometimes the rain would postpone everything indefinitely. Everything was improvised and slow moving, against the backdrop of palm trees and Caribbean sunrises.

Flash forward to my time in Northern Wisconsin. I would still go on frequent trips for meetings. The means of transportation was a scratched up used Toyota SUV (that I still drive to this day). I would trek to every corner of Oneida County, and often across the State, through great pine forests and picturesque farm communities. I would meet with colleagues or groups of community members who were interested in what I had to say. We would talk about broadband Internet infrastructure. Attracting young people to rural communities. Job creation. Sometimes snow would get in the way, but it took a real humdinger of a blizzard before I would stay at home. Meetings needed to happen. Fried fish and diner food fueled these meetings, and I would sleep in budget motels, if I wasn’t driving through the night to get home.

It all feels quite different from how I now find myself traveling. I’m in a big private vehicle, with time to do work during the drive because I am not the one driving. I wear a suit and carry a BlackBerry. Meetings start on time. I stay at a big swanky hotel with a view of the whole city. The driver knows all the best restaurants in town. It all feels a bit strange. I’ve been on these trips several times now, and I’m still not quite used to or comfortable with it. I’d be happy and eager to ride a bus or stay at a hostel. That’s more my style. But the reason for most of these trappings has to do with security. I remind myself that a U.S. Diplomat can’t wander anonymously through the countryside or city in a region that is (sadly) still home to a fair amount of violence. I need to travel in a way that protects the security of myself and the mission, which means going in the vehicles and staying in the hotels that the rules dictate. I may not be totally comfortable with it, but it is part of the game.

But I’m also reminded that there is much about this travel that is consistent with the way I used to do things. I am still doing my best to bring answers to people who have questions. I am still listening to what they have to say, and going back to my office to figure out how to integrate it into future work. I’m still relating to people who are different from myself. Still telling silly jokes to make PowerPoint presentations more interesting. Still hoping to make the world better, one little road trip at a time. And I’m still buying food by the side of the road. The driver might know about the fancy places, but he’s also expert in where the best roadside quesadillas are too. I might be wearing a tie, but my love for street food, and the conversation that comes with it, hasn’t gone anywhere.

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.