It’s a quiet morning here on the farm. My Wife, Son, and Grandfather have all made the trek down the road and up the steep hill to church. I’ve opted for a somewhat less holy morning of coffee and Emails. Not nearly as uplifting but we all have our spiritual needs I suppose.
Despite my morning of zen, a lot has happened in the past few weeks. Most recently, my baby sister graduated from high school, thereby ensuring my parents an empty nest if they ever permit her to leave. For now, her college plans include attending the local university and commuting from home at their insistence.
For my friends and colleagues not from Southwest Oklahoma, the graduation ceremony itself would have been somewhat of a surprise. Like the one hundred and five Walters High School Commencement ceremonies before it, my sister’s graduation was punctuated by very public references to God and Jesus with one precocious valedictorian going so far as to share the gospel from rostrum, complete with pastoral inflections and Biblical passages. Naturally, he was a preacher’s kid – the scion of the First Baptist Church minister no less. As if this weren’t enough, the baccalaureate service was also prominently advertised, directly opposite the graduation agenda on the official programs issued by the school. It was enough to make even this God-fearing agnostic’s head swirl. Suffice it to say, Jefferson’s wall of separation between church and state is in a bit of disrepair around here.
On the other hand, such a melding of faith and state wasn’t all bad. After a spirited debate with the powers that be, my sister managed to secure permission to wear an Eagle plume feather from her mortar board. Granted, the permission didn’t not come readily or perhaps even willingly, but we were all pleased nonetheless that the situation didn’t escalate. Last year, a Native American high school senior from Alabama was fined $1000 for her exercise of religious expression. The matter would have been especially ironic given the overt displays of religious expression throughout the ceremony. Perhaps the event will mark a new era of religious pluralism here in sleepy Walters, OK?
First Amendment questions aside, being home has been rather nice in other ways. We returned to America unexpectedly at the conclusion of my contract with the University of Waikato at the end of March. Fundraising had been a perennial problem for my employer, the University Waikato’s new Indigenous Governance Centre. But as you can see in the photo above, we returned to warm temps and mild summer evenings that provide ample time for walks down the narrow lane leading to our house. I enjoyed similar walks with my Son in New Zealand, but the area around our flat didn’t have the quiet, peaceful environs we enjoy here in the country. In a way, the biggest benefit to being home is how simple it really is.
While I poked a bit of fun earlier at the overt religiosity here in the veritable buckle of the Bible Belt, there is something to be said for the stability and simplicity of life gleaned from the faith that guides most people around here – a faith I once had. This is particularly true when one considers the relative chaos that seems to pervade everything else.
Consider that in just the past week alone, people much more tech savvy than myself have said that the security infrastructure of our computers and computer systems is “held together with the IT equivalent of baling wire.” Similarly smart people have questioned whether the crisis in the Ukraine could lead to another World War. And not long ago, closer to home, our State so thoroughly botched the execution of a man that he died of a heart-attack some twenty minutes after state officials halted the entire process.
Given such a comedy of errors, it’s nice to have a place that’s insulated from the madness – if only for a short while. But more on that to come.
It’s 9:40AM on Christmas Eve here in Hamilton. We are seated in the surprisingly spacious waiting room of the Hillcrest Medical Centre. It’s a relatively small operation boasting some eleven doctors and two grumpy receptionists. The room is far from full so Gwyn is feeding Clark a banana.
Despite the inauspicious locale, all is well for our small brood. But with homeward and Christmas thoughts aplenty, I can’t help but recall the fact that the Savior of the world was born as an undocumented alien far from home. Given the special relationship between Jesus and immigrants, it occurs to me that we are doing something today that only a family of immigrants would do.
We are here today waiting to collect my medical records so that we can process our visa application before the Immigration Office closes at Noon for the New Year.
And we haven’t much time.
Naturally, the receptionist seemed a bit annoyed when I indicated that we would rather wait for our records than “pop in” later to pick them up. The Kiwi way of doing things, and the social good form, is to let things go for another day. “It’ll get done” is the mantra. No rush. But for us niceties aren’t an option. Time is of the essence. A late offer letter from my University, coupled with the need to have my passport renewed, have all conspired against us in retrieving the medical records we initiated for processing with this clinic nearly three months ago.
The receptionist, managing a busy office, wasn’t terribly interested in our story. Her glare was sufficient to communicate her thoughts on our situation. Which is a bit odd in retrospect since we were instructed by her colleague to follow the present course of action (viz., to drop off our records yesterday and collect them today). Good to see communication struggles occur in every relationship – even among colleagues.
But, as I mentioned, our situation today reminds me somewhat of Christ’s birth because the same predicaments that led Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem have led me and Gwyn and Clark to the clinic – inane policies of government they were obliged to follow – no matter how very pregnant Mary was.
In the end, they were as much victims of circumstances as we are today. I suspect they were met with similarly unsympathetic stares when making their pleas for lodging.
“Sorry, not much else I can do,” the receptionist says. And so we wait.
I’ve seen my doctor just now. As luck would have it, inexplicably, he never bothered to complete the forms of my medical exam. Different system here I guess. “Thought you didn’t need it completed.” And then the dreaded words, “Can’t possibly get it done before Noon.”
To be fair, his workload is swamped today, but after a bit of cajoling, I manage to secure a commitment to do what he can in light of our timeframe. “No Doctor, we don’t mind the wait.” The Doc means well, but it’s clear he’d rather not process many more of these immigration exams, doubtless preferring his usual lot of patients.
“Can’t promise anything. But I’ll try to get it done before lunch.” He adds.
It’s strange to be in such a position of utter dependence upon the competence (and at this point sheer will) of others. I’m quite nearly inclined to say that we are dependent upon the kindness of others, but I’m not sure that competence qualifies as a kindness for medical professionals. Back home, we might call this simply a duty of care.
The relation of this to Christmas is that Mary and Joseph were in a similar fix – not that we are in any other way comparable to the parents of the Christ. Even so, I can understand, now, the pressure they must have felt. The urgent need to find someone, anyone, willing to accommodate them. And the crushing feeling of being turned away.
Clark has grown fussy so Gwyn is taking him for a walk. The receptionist is taking morning tea back to the doctors. Patients and records be damned. In New Zealand, nothing thwarts morning tea.We have only an hour and a half now to make the trek downtown to the Immigration Office. Unlike “The Hunger Games,” the odds do not seem to be in our favor.
I suppose things could be worse. We could be awaiting news of a serious illness or saying good-bye to a loved one. Fortunately, we’re all healthy if not a bit sleep deprived. Still, it’s time to begin preparing for a less than ideal outcome.
I like to think of how Mary reached a point of meditation and zen about her own situation which was certainly more dire than ours.
Mary came from limited means. Surely rearing a son would be a challenge under any circumstance for her. This was doubtless made even more complicated given her engagement to Joseph, what with carrying a child that was not his and all. I suppose this might be a bit chauvinistic, but no matter how tremendous the blessing, a man still likes to know that it’s his child in his wife’s belly.
This makes her response to the Angel’s news of her pregnancy all the more striking. Then again, as we are learning today, what can you do when events are out of your control but ponder them? (Luke 2.19).
Talk about snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. Only moments ago the Doctor came out, tight-lipped, wordlessly handing me a large envelope with the completed paperwork for my visa application. I no more had time to thank him than he turned away, back to the grind. His bedside manner leaves something to be desired. But it’s hard to quibble with a guy who delivers.
I don’t know that there’s a Christmas correlation for this outcome. Seems a bit different than having to birth a child in a manger. Given the two, we’re faring much better today. For my part, I’m just relieved things seem to have turned out alright. Perhaps that’s how Mary and Joseph felt, just thankful for a bit of shelter and some privacy.
I called a cab for Gwyn to drive her to the Immigration Office. By God, this just might work. As if on cue, the cab arrived in a matter of minutes. I’m inordinately thankful as I watch her pull away from the curb. Clark’s tiny hand does a small wave. We’ve been teaching him that, which makes me proud. Normally we’d all take the bus. But as the muse says, “ain’t nobody got time for that.”
Gwyn called just now. Our paperwork was delivered with 50 minutes to spare.
It’s a small one. But I’ll count it a Christmas miracle all the same.
To celebrate our good fortune, we had a Christmas Eve lunch at the lone Mexican taqueria in Hamilton, New Zealand. It’s conveniently located in the food court at the Centre Place Mall.
I had a burrito and a Diet Coke. The salsa was mild. The meat was shredded, and rather good.
Dear God –
Today, I’m thankful for rain. For cool summer showers and lawns that resemble seas of green.
For lunches shared with ducks and for countries where a beer for lunch isn’t terribly scandalous.
My heart is also thankful for technology and for the diversity of this life that it allows me to connect with. Even more than that, I am thankful for the complexity of people – else life would be rather boring.
I am thankful for moral autonomy and human agency. I am glad for shades of gray and for the purity of my young son – who, for now, lives only in the white.
I am thankful to be alive at this moment in time despite how similar life is to the rain I am enjoying – falling like a droplet from the heavens, only to disappear into this terrestrial plane.
My wife, Son and I applied for an extension of our visas today. Coincidentally, today is also the four year anniversary of our marriage.
If you had told me on our wedding day that four years hence we would be living in a foreign land, with an infant son in tow, I would have promptly asked you to leave. Our wedding was dry and, clearly, you would have been drunk.
And yet, sometimes reality is even stranger than the fictions we create. So, here we are, sitting in an outdoor cafe, enjoying blue New Zealand skies, while Clark enjoys a bottle. Not only have we been away from America for six months but we have just applied to remain away longer – and during football season to boot.
If there’s a comfort to be had in our absence, it’s that the public sector services here in New Zealand are just as dreadful as they are back home. There’s no more depressing place in earth than your local DMV. The same can be said for the New Zealand Immigration Office, Hamilton Branch.
I won’t get too much into the weeds, except to say that only the government would make paying fees a fiasco and couple this inanity by referring patrons to a call centre rather than addressing questions in person – the presumptive point of having an office in the first place.
Contrast this with my experience at my local (viz., private) bank in the same building only a few floors below. Prompt, courteous service. Happy to answer any questions Dr. Fodder. I’m not even the kind of Doctor that helps people and the staff was still deferential and unfailingly polite.
All the same, it’s been a consequential four years to say the least. A good four years. And that’s not ever an easy or glib thing for me to say. I am blessed.
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Today is a University holiday here in Hamilton. With the day off and nothing to do, I popped into a local pub to draft a few postcards to family and friends back home.
The Abbey is a most agreeable establishment. Sponsored in part by Stella Artois, the Belgian brewing company renown for its premium lager, the pub has all the features one might expect of a quaint pub including wood floors and dark paneled walls.
As I sat at my table and began to write, I could not think of a better way to while away a lazy fall afternoon. There’s something eminently appropriate about a pint and a pen.
And whilst I wrote to my family, I couldn’t help but think of life in America, of life back home. The nostalgic trip down memory lane reminded me of how much has changed in recent months.
Roughly six month ago, my son was born in Tucson, Arizona (10/15/12). At the time, I could not have forecasted that six months later I would be writing postcards in a pub in New Zealand having missed his first Easter.
“Oh the places you’ll go,” as Dr. Seuss said.
Like most extended separations, the time here is bitter sweet. It has been a tremendous opportunity to be here and serve at the pleasure of the Centre and my colleagues. Yet, it is difficult not to miss home and family and friends. Particularly when things settle down on days like today.
It’s interesting that my Māori friends so often inquire as to my family’s welfare. Their culture is one that values family, or whanau, above all else. To see a new father, so far from his family is a difficult thing for them to process. I suppose things in America and New Zealand are not that different after all.
And so I’ll draft and mail my postcards with fond thoughts of home. I will down a fine pint imbibed in a foreign land to steel my resolve. And I will say a brief, post-Easter prayer with love for their well-being – because when one is so far away, there’s not much more one can do.
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“The people of long ago are not remembered, nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come by those who come after them.”
– Ecclesiastes 1.11
We had our weekly doctor’s appointment today. I’ll do my best not to reveal too much information although this is surprisingly difficult to do when discussing a pregnancy. In brief, Gwyn is progressing quite well and is nearing the stages of early delivery. In terms of timeframe, Baby Clark could arrive any day now.
Being the eternal ray of sunshine that I am, his birth triggers a lot of conflicting thoughts for me. Naturally, I’ll start with the more melancholic.
I suppose I turned to the passage above from Ecclesiastes because it reminds me of our collective lot, set amid the vast pantheon of begins who have lived and died on this terrestrial plane, and are now forgotten. Thinking of my son, I want him to exceed this very low bar set by Ecclesiastes. I want his life to have meaning. I don’t want his name relegated to the dusty annals of history. I want him to be…great!
Of course, greatness, by definition, is rare. When I think of the great men of history, I think of Jesus. Thomas Jefferson. John Locke. Bing Crosby. William F. Buckley. Henry Ford. Steve Jobs and even Ernest Hemingway. Just a few names. But all men who lived lives of consequence. Hoping that Clark will assume a post among the great men of time is surely the blind ambitions of a joyful father. Yes, I know that the humble, appropriate thing to do is to pray that he lives a life of character – and I will pray for that. But just for good measure, I’ll tack on a prayer that he live a life of consequence. However that is defined.
I suspect such prayers are what most parents want for their children. Given my present station in life, I feel that this is a bit like the blind leading the blind. But the arrival of children does a strange thing to us parents to be. My life has become less important to me than the reality of my child having a better future. This sentiment so often struck me as a cliché. I’m amazed to know this is what parents really feel. For myself, I merely pray for the vision to help make these things a reality for Clark, even as he charts his own course.
Not all of my thoughts are so morose. The second section of Ecclesiastes takes what has become a circumspect, existential view of life. For me, this means that the best I can do is live in the present – not in hopes of what things might come. The present reality is that my son will be here very, very soon.
As the sun streams through my kitchen window, I have to smile when I think about his tiny feet. Feet that have yet to set foot on this ancient sphere. I think of his tiny fists – fists not clenched in anger but in warmth and love. I can imagine his tiny eyes, not yet fully able to take in his surroundings. Sleepy eyes that have never seen the evil and sorrows of this world.
Simply put, he is pure. Pure in every conceivable, normative sense of the word. An angel. Better still, a son.
One day, we will throw passes in the yard, just as my Father and Grandfather did with me. Perhaps when he’s able to, we’ll read a book together, or settle in for a game of Call of Duty. Maybe when he’s much older we’ll have cigars and scotch on the porch. I hope he likes that sort of thing. For that matter, I hope he will like our pooch, Alexas. She can be rambunctious. Unrelated, I also hope he is a Republican so that we can complain to one another between election cycles. And I hope that I don’t drive him away. But when I do, because it’s inevitable that I will, I hope that he will come back.
So many hopes. So many joys. So many worries.
But for now, we wait.
Take your time, Dear Son. Enjoy the love of your Mother’s belly. We’ll be waiting to care for you when you come into our World.
With Baby Clark’s birth so near, today seemed like as good a day as any to give a quick update on life, as opposed to the book reviews I’ve lately been posting.
I suppose this is true of any couple, but Gwyn and I have spent much time preparing for our Son’s arrival. We obviously have a name picked out but we didn’t do a big announcement – at least until he actually comes into the world. I don’t much believe in Karma but better not to take any chances. One of the more interesting aspects of our preparations (besides nearly weekly trips to Babies “R” Us) has been coordinating travel plans with our respective families. Gwyn’s family has plans to depart from Indianapolis, while my family will make the trek from Southwest Oklahoma. Given that the baby is not nearly so interested in advance planning as we are, coordinating things has been quite the feat. We’ve more or less accepted the fact that it’s entirely possible no one will be here when he’s born, except for me and Gwyn – unless, of course, the stars align, itineraries converge, and Baby Fodder proves to be every bit the Type-A planner his father is. And really, no one would wish that on him at all.
On my afternoon bike rides, I find my mind wandering more and more toward the type of world our Baby Boy will soon enter. As an erstwhile political junkie, given that we are in the midst of the Presidential Election, it’s impossible not to think about the type of country my Son will grow up in. By any fair measure, the political/economic/social state of our union is at a crucial juncture. With my generation facing massive debt, fewer financial opportunities than the generation before us, and a stagnant political system that has offered no solutions, I am convinced that this election will have tremendous ramifications for our Nation going forward. And as a partisan, I’m also quite convinced that the Nation needs a new vision other than the one offered by the current Administration. Naturally, I was quite pleased with Gov. Romney’s performance during the first debate on Wednesday. I think the AP Photo here, more or less sums up the feelings of both sides following the 90 minute skirmish.
But setting aside partisanship for a moment, it’s interesting for me to think about this election in terms of how it will affect my very near-future offspring. I’ve heard politicians and wannabe politicians clamor for years and years about how elections are all about the kind of future we want to leave for our children. More often than not, I wrote off the remark as that of an older generation trying to kiss up to a younger generation. Maybe a lame attempt to keep granny out of the home for a couple of years, who knows? But as a soon-to-be Father, I find myself asking, “Who would run our ship of state better? Who can I trust to steer us in a direction that will allow my Son to have opportunities that I could not, say 18 – 20 years from now?” Having never really done it before, it’s a strange thing to think with the mind of a parent.
And of course, I’ve had many thoughts about the greater world – mostly at night while having a cigar on the porch. Overseas, the war drums beat, though perhaps not quite so loudly, between Israel and Iran. The world watches to see what position, if any, the U.S. will take. Meanwhile, the American embassy in Lybia burns and our FBI teams have only just entered the country, some three weeks after the assassination of our Ambassador by terrorists. The latest question to arise over the incident this week is whether our government actually ordered a cover-up of the whole thing.
To be sure, our Son will be born during a critical hour in history. As a captive of my moment, I would like to think that these challenges are unique but if I give my parents’ generation and my grandparents’ generation any credit, it’s clear that each has faced its own critical moments. But as a future parent, the status quo simply isn’t acceptable to me. I actually want my Son to grow up in a peaceful world. Strange, isn’t it? I’d like him to travel and explore other cultures that are currently restricted by the tensions of world powers (e.g., Egypt, Venezuela, even Iran). Of course, there’s actually a self-interested element in all of this as well – for all I know, my Son could pursue a career in the armed forces; he could command a fighter jet over the Pacific (although with his mother’s eyesight, I highly doubt this). He might even join the special ops, and genuinely mean that he would have to kill me if he told me what he actually did. Suffice it to say, if I were a military parent, I’d rather my Son serve during a time of peace with his missions more akin to Johnny English than Jason Bourne.
As a fall air gradually begins to blow across Tucson’s alluvial plain, the only certainty I have of late is the blue, October sky above. As a would be parent, this leaves me extremely unsettled. So much is out of my control and I can’t help but think that I know so little about life. And yet this little life, due in two weeks or so, needs me to help him make it make sense.
And so I do the only thing I can: I pray that my Son might flourish, even in the desert of our age.
Apologies readers for a long delay in posting. I’m glad to say that while I may not have built Pax Plena, and though I may have left it in a somewhat derelict state, the site is, indeed, not dead.
My lack of posts can best be summed up as having an over abundance of time. With Tucson’s sultry monsoon season upon us, I’ve spent a great deal of time enjoying the climate control of our casita, enjoying a glass of bourbon, and reading Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. While such ventures tend to be more rooted in the introspective rather than the productive, according to Pirsig’s Zen principles, the act of doing nothing is as much a virtue as a vice.
Pirsig ultimately sums up our state of existence as follows:
The past cannot remember the past. The future can’t generate the future. The cutting edge of this instant right here and now is always nothing less than the totality of everything there is. p.289.
In other words, this moment is all there is. We can no more plan for our future with any measurable certainty than we can rectify the past through our actions in the future. The best we can do, according to Pirsig, is to appreciate “the totality of everything there is,” and presumably take measures to enjoy it a lot more. This has been my personal challenge this summer. Being one who would much rather be active and about the work of some project, having completed my education and being in between jobs, this summer I have had little alternative than to attempt to purposefully structure my time. For example, in order to pass the evenings, I typically sit on my porch to smoke a cigar. Cigars of the corona variety, take about 30 minutes or so to smoke – assuming one draws-in and exhales, as opposed to merely huffing and puffing.
In honesty, the results have been mixed. I find my mind wanders a great deal when I attempt to set aside time for my zen aspirations. I’m sure a better Buddhist would tell me that “I’m doing it wrong.” Still, I find the time is relaxing even if it has not been overly productive in a typical sense. It’s nice to consider all the things going on in our world, to consider the structural challenges to progress that our lot faces, and even to consider the immediate future, to appreciate my wife, our soon-to-be-born son, family, friends, and of course our Pooch.
I can’t say that this has been an altogether bad summer. I suppose my reticence to enjoy the here and now as Pirsig would have me do is really a reflection of my own soul and personality. Bertrand Russell struck a similar tone in his essay, In Praise of Idleness. My own autobiography might be better titled, Idly Praising, at least so far as this summer is concerned. The notion of idleness is not something I have come to find comfortable, my study of Pirsig notwithstanding.
Still, change comes as it invariably must. Fall will be here soon. In the coming weeks, we have a number of major, life events looming on the horizon including deciding my professional next steps, the prospect of relocation from Tucson, and, of course, the joyful arrival or our son in October – to say nothing of the start of Football season, which is one of the ways God shares his love with us.
While I have not learned Pirsig’s lessons about living in the now, it would be amiss to say that I’ve learned nothing. I am gradually coming to terms with the unknown. By this point, the unknown is more like an old friend than an apparition. And like the fisherman in my Bonsai above, I’m content to enjoy my shade, and let time work its transition from a future of possibility into the certitude of the past.