On Gratitude

What are you thankful for? I find sometimes that asking myself this question is a helpful exercise as I sit on my front porch in the early African morning with my coffee, looking out over the mists which still cling gently to the green and the dawn-birds searching for that last worm or spider before they all take refuge from the pounding African sun. Up above my little boy is just waking. A steam rises delicately from my cup, the aroma of a place quiet and clean and safely tucked away from Africa’s camps. I haven’t yet become embroiled in the day’s battles; my mind is still clear and fresh from sleep and I can examine things in their natural state.

I walk through the dewy grass out onto my back porch, to gaze through the concertina wire into a makeshift village which has popped up while nobody was looking in a green area which is supposed to be a city park. Big holes dug into the ground as tilapia ponds; cement walls under zinc roof, wooden doors and windows; smoke drifting upwards from the outdoor kitchen, breakfast cooked over pieces of artisanal charcoal which is ruining the continent. Cows and ducks and goats – all signs of prosperity in Africa. Juxtaposed against the camps, they must be thankful. But I wonder, are they?

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I used to live in Dubai, for a season, and I would often engage the Pakistani cab drivers who would ferry me from one super-mall to another. “I live in one room,” they would tell me, “with 10 other drivers. We have come together. We work 12 hour shifts; and once a year we go home.” To Islamabad, to Lahore or to Peshawar or Karachi. And then he would smile, “I am providing for my family and saving for my restaurant; thanks God.”

Then, for a time, I lived in Venezuela. An expensive apartment in an expensive part of town, one of those with private elevators and a little guard station out front which monitored the entrance, allowing or denying access in order to assure the security of the residences from the perilous lands outside. A service we all paid for through the condo fees; a doorman of sorts I suppose, but not in the Fifth Avenue way. One day I realized that one of the guards had been missing for a while. “What happened?” I asked the building manager. “He was fired.” “Oh?” I asked, “Why was that?” It seems he had been, calentando las orejas, ‘warming the ears’ of the other building staff. Warming the ears, a lovely Venezuelan turn of phrase for bitter whispering, malicious and petty and mean. “We control access to the doors!” he had been telling the other doormen. “We can even deny them entry, until they give us what we want. Why should they have the right to live up there, while we are down here – and we control access to the doors?” Those were in the heady days of Hugo Chavez; when his political project was just beginning.

Our joy depends upon how we look at life. How we look at ourselves; and against whom do we juxtapose our own existence. I live in a nice house in Africa. Internet, electricity, air conditioning. To most Africans I am the .1%. To the Fifth Avenue crowd I am perhaps ‘middle-class’, at best. To a Pakistani cab driver I am just another American going from one mall to the next; for a Venezuelan communist I am a foot soldier of oppression, a perpetually flashing neon sign that there are people in the rung of the ladder above him, a ladder he must force his way up through violence and blood. Its all very complicated, isn’t it?

Back to Africa. Not far from where I sit, are the camps. Dozens, hundreds, thousands spread across this hard continent. I have written about the camps – cultural appropriation, those who don’t know the camps might call it. But no matter, because those who understand how ruin happens will call it what it is, empathy; and will know I have earned the right. Empathy is the leavening agent for gratitude, and gratitude is the enzyme which catalyzes action; as the opposite of envy, which is the leavening agent for greed and catalyzes violence.

So I ask you, this morning. Who are you? Are you a hard working Pakistani cab-driver anxious to build and hold something for his little boy? Are you a bitter doorman who only can see the comings and goings of your oppressors? Are you protesting something, or are you building something? Do you want to take, or do you want to give back? And, this morning, is there something you are thankful for?

Because gratitude infused in public policy is sacrifice; while envy weaponized into law is socialism. And we are, even today, trying to decide in which type of society we want to live. As for me, I have already decided. What about you?

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“City of Memories” – A Book Review

If Congo is Africa for Africans; the obsidian consciousness of a continent – Nigeria is Africa for the rest of the world, as both its promise and its threat.

Nigeria is old. Epic battles of ancient armies; the resounding echoes of empire and emirate rising in a raucous cacophony which still rings true in the ears of her people and reminds them of where they have come from. “Identity is like history, it should be a tool, not a burden.”

It has been said that, if western philosophy is born of wonder; the African version is the child of frustration (Consolation Philosophy they have called it). Albert Camus’ joyful nihilism replaced in favor of Chinua Achebe – stories of post-colonial liberation quickly become those of enduring corruption and violence. “And who are you fighting against? I see all your hackles up but I can’t see why,” Funmi said finally. “Nigeria. I am fighting against Nigeria.” “The same Nigeria you are fighting for?” “Yes,” said Rahila.

“City of Memories” by Richard Ali is about all this; about ancient ethnic feuds – the religious and tribal making common cause with dynamics of love and power. A Romeo and Juliet story against the backdrop of an African high plateau. This is a love story; but also a story about faith and futility and sadness. But it is a Nigerian story so it is not one of hopelessness but instead of the epic struggle to overcome; not ending in suicide as the Montagues and Capulets of old bit instead in joy.

Now to mechanics – for that is what really matters. And it is here where Ali shines. Because this book was a joy to read. The beats were fast paced when needed, and then tempered by the descriptions which give the reader a chance to catch his breath and become immersed in Africa. The dialogue rings true; the characters are compelling and the novel ends in a crescendo.

I encourage you; read this book, become immersed in Nigeria as you learn how a Muslim boy and a Christian girl can find each other. And as you do, think about this, “If they can overcome so great a chasm, maybe we also can find our way to peace?”

On a personal note, I have had the chance to get to know Richard Ali a little bit – which has in no way influenced my review of his novel. Those who know me, at least, will accept that. What I will say is that it has been a singular opportunity; to debate Donald J. Trump and Albert Camus and Francis Fukuyama with an African intellectual while eating chicken and fries in a small restaurant in a rain-swept African capital. Isn’t that what gives two writers the most joy of all??!!

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Dr. Denis Mukwege

Eastern Congo; it’s Africa’s own Africa and the Kivu capitals of Goma and Bukavu its dual-beating heart. Those who know, well they know; alas for those who don’t, it’s hard to explain. Two messy, shaken and tragic cities beautiful as jewels hugging either end of a great crystalline mountain lake; but they would have to be rubies for the blood that bubbles through them and often down the Ruzizi river and onward. Belgian Art Deco architecture crumbling under the weight of a war that never ends – new hotels shining crowded full of Blue Helmets; old ones with cut-crystal glass and cutlery emblazoned with crests that still insinuate colony except the patrons are now fat African politicians and thin rebel warlords with hard eyes under cowboy hats; protected by their child soldiers. Above the city of Goma Mt. Nyrangongo sits in silent supervision, le grandpere glowing orange as a constant threat to again fill the city’s streets with its molten glowing rivers, for he has made no covenant with the people. The Virunga jungles, emptied of animals after 20 years of guerilla armies ate everything – including often the pygmies. Coltan and gold and wood and the tiny jungle elephants; all sold to the highest bidder during Africa’s world war.

Rape as a weapon, war as a never-ending way of life, pillage as a pastime – sorrow and bitterness and sadness.

IMG_1217[1]I have known Congo. For two years during that civil war (1998-2003), on three separate occasions, I worked in the Kivus of eastern Congo. Goma and Bukavu. A war that has never ended long after it officially “ended”. I was with a large NGO, and we were doing the stuff large NGOs did – running supplementary feeding centers, distributing food and non-food (hygiene kits), building schools in places of relative safety. Goat rotation schemes, condom distributions. The therapeutic feeding centers were the worst – sixty or seventy starving children crammed into a “hospital” wing. Silence, because severely malnourished children do not even have the energy to cry. Nowhere to go, after we discharged them – husbands dead, themselves displaced and knowing we would see them again in that terrible revolving door of hunger; for ours was the only safe space. Writing reports, hosting journalists and “Fellows” from the think tanks as we raised awareness in Europe and America on what was happening in a war nobody cared about – another transient white face fighting alongside our Congolese colleagues until we left, leaving them to fight on.

This year the Nobel committee has chosen Denis Mukwege for that most coveted prize; a prize everybody wants but nobody wants to do what it takes to earn, except for those off years when the committee in Oslo goes crazy and awards it to a polished politician with a quick smile and a partisan agenda, but I digress. Because not this year. This year it’s a fighter – a street fighter from the violent east of Congo who decided to work the long hours and take the risk to address the effects of a terrible injustice that cried out for an answer.

It is not easy for Congolese who wish to be counted. Let me tell you a story. One evening in Goma, after work, I was driving back over the hardened lava home with my car full of staff who needed a ride. There, at the central roundabout was a Rwandan military truck with a half dozen soldiers pulling a Congolese woman onto the back. Much to the chagrin of the Congolese staff, I stopped the car and got out, signaling for the rebels to release the girl. After an exchange of glares, the woman was thrown out of the back and reunited with her family and we drove on; just another day in Congo. Had I been Congolese, it would have been my last for I would have been shot.

Dr. Mukwege almost was. In 2012, after criticizing Joseph Kabila for the perpetuation of the violence, a group of thugs broke into his house in Bukavu, holding his family hostage. For whatever reason – which I’m sure he does not even know – he was not killed. Exiled for a brief time, he returned to work; the news of this greatest of prizes found him in surgery.

Mukwege is one of those unsung heroes who embodies the persistence and sacrifice of those who deserve the prize. I left Congo in 2003, never to return. After me came waves and waves and yet more waves of foreigners; fighting the mayhem for a season, reveling in Africa’s Africa, taking a story to our families and memories we treasure in our hearts – all the while Mukwege stayed on. It was his fight, after all. And through his tenacity, Dr. Mukwege has earned his place in the pantheon of peace.

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Powerlessness In America

Just as the rest of America, I too was swept away by the Kavanaugh hearings. A popular but unconventional president; the highest court in the land. An eleventh hour spoil appears from out of the shadows of California – where else? – to joust and spar in our most hallowed halls while outside the bread and circus churns in all its bizarre splendor. Accusations so outlandish to the decency and etiquette of good men that they have to be heard, if only to satisfy the morbid curiosity of a public that has become desensitized, accustomed now only to the tawdry and the lascivious. A circus to pass the time – a pantomime for the powerless who are trying every trick in their limited imaginations to not remain so.

My novelist eye often imagines how history will look back at this moment. I am a fan of documentaries and mini-series of medieval courts in Europe. A cardinal, mad with rage hauling his enemies before an ecumenical tribunal for a counterfeit trial and onward to a sentence pre-ordained. I wonder how future plays by our latter-day playwrights will show these our days of heady chaos? Witch trials; book-burnings; scarlet letters emblazoned forever, electronic even perhaps. But guilt, innocence? Well that’s not the point. Those are old ideas, nostalgic ideas, quant almost. Cute in their utopianism – perhaps still important in children’s storybooks or on the pages of epic fictions (Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia). But not for modern public life tribunals. Today they are as they were centuries ago, a lesson by the inquisition; “Do not dare to challenge us, we who are the moral. Lest we destroy you.” Not with violence – not these days, not in the old sense. The rack, drawn and quartered, beheaded and placed upon display. The violence today rests in the weaponization of outrage carefully honed in the kiln of public opinion to be used against any who dare hold their own council. Of course, what of those who do – and now do so in the sacred sanctuary of our highest viziers? Well, the apocalypse. No, in that case a normal accusation will not do – it must be evil and Machiavellian befitting the epic nature of the contest.

But the real story in all this might be called, “Powerlessness in America”. Because there can be no power if there is no truth. There can be violence and destruction – but that is not power. And those who gave us a post-truth world have also given us “alternative facts” and empty accusations judged not by due process but by counting hashtags and column inches (above the fold, preferably) – by the number of harangues on public street corners or inside restaurants where I am eating with my family. And there can also be no power without consent; legitimacy, that golden crucible which is delicate and fragile and ephemeral because it is an idea and a spirit. A contract – oh my libertarian friends don’t like the idea of Rousseau’s “social contract” for it implies obligations inherited through birth, differing around the world based upon tribe and religion and gender. But isn’t this what community is all about?

Community

Powerlessness in America. Those who opposed our fine new judge are feeling powerless this morning. So too those who were unable to stop the charade and had to stand aside and watch the slander in disgust. But did you know that powerlessness is the American design? Divided into separate authorities, into different parties and federalized down and away, limited by times and terms and staggered to thin the passions of the mob – power diluted away and safe from the grasping hands of the greedy. Because, while the belief in real power brings some to believe “separation of powers weakens the state,” – famously from Venezuela’s own Supreme Court – true powerlessness is the end result of the poverty brought about a predatory state. Just ask North Korea’s elite killed by anti-aircraft weapons and eaten by dogs or the Venezuelans who thought they could vote themselves other people’s money. Power may be fun, when you are in charge. When its arbitrary and absolute. But how often does that happen? And what guarantees that you will be the tyrant? And what war, what violence are you willing to call down to achieve this end? And do you think it will fill you? Because it has never done so – for anybody – in our world’s long story of power.

True power, let it be known (for all the “resisters”, because the faithful already know this) comes not from control of our sage chamber of magistrates or by who sits in an odd-shaped office in a stately mansion atop a swamp. True power comes from our own conscience, of what we teach our children when we read them a story at night, when we bicycle with them in the morning before breakfast and when they ask us questions about right and wrong. True power is control of our emotions; discipline to build a world from nothing, gamble it on an opportunity and lose and start again (yes, I think I read that somewhere). True power is standing naked before our God and admitting our true nature to Him and through that admission to ourselves as well. And then, true power is to take that understanding and turn it into a life lived more abundant; with faithfulness and restraint and kindness.

And then passing these things on to our little boys through the stories of the also-powerless.

Because those are the important lessons. For if they are stories about wise men, kind women, and faithful families those kernels will be carried forward into the future. But if they are about hatred and violence and anger – let’s call it “resist” – well you might just get what you ask for; and it might resemble North Korea or Venezuela more than it does Atlantis; and you might not be in charge.

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My Hamster’s Wheel – A Poem

My life has b’come but a jacket;
Twisted kind which is oft’sold as straight;
“To live free, not sure if you can hack it”;
And I’m told for to sit down and wait.

So I wake myself neat in the mornin;
Coffee walking the dog and a show’r;
Ignoring the voice and his warnin;
Escape now whilst you still have the pow’r;

Gettin into my car, set aside;
The great urgency voice has announced;
To my two only places I ride;
Permitting my spirit be trounced.

My lot daily is actin the motions;
Of life safe-lived but also quite spare;
Ignoring the truth of the quotients;
Free men oft do see something quite rare.

So how to but live life abundant?
One lived ever as truly should be;
To identify what is redundant;
And walk to-wards the ways that are free.

See, the ruin we cradle is padded;
Hard and crusty and comfortable too;
And each earthly year there’ll be added;
Entertainment for us in the zoo.

Flaccid, flightless and foul metamorphize;
Vapid stares as we shuffle unseen;
Thinking thoughts that are hidden and unwise;
More important is empty to preen.

Ideas like lungs do need air;
And require wide spaces to soar;
In contact is when they’re made fair;
And in combat you will hear their roar.

But our goddess of speech she’s quite vicious;
Small-minded, oft selfish and mean;
She holds grudges and judges ambitious;
Most bothers her when you are seen.

Problem there is said zoo is quite tiny;
Even mumbles dissent they are heard;
And heaven forbid you are whiney;
Or wish to say something ‘absurd’.

Back now onto daily existence;
Ambling hunchbacked on into my box;
The drip-drip of the torture’s insistence;
As one after next I break rocks.

Those who overfly are now our owners;
And our cages they’ve gilded with gold;
Ordering carefully now each day the tonors;
While our inner most thoughts they now hold.

Been reading the books I have often;
And writing some when I find time;
Cuz chains they oft do tend to soften;
And the jackets come loose at a rhyme.

So I read about those who, imprisoned;
Found their own ways to loosen the cage;
Who of fields of blue flowers envisioned;
And the well-worded wars that they waged.

I oft-wonder if time I am wasting;
And foolish quite often I feel;
Spending hours upon hours a-tasting;
Freedom taken from my hamster’s wheel.

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On Patience

Sometimes in the early morning over coffee, I turn on my computer and descend into Facebook – attempting to avoid bitterness and stupidity and unfriending people as I go (if you’re still one of those folks who posts political stuff on FB with the comment “I can’t believe this” or “How low can we go?!”, you should know nobody does that anymore) – I often come across simple quiet questions posted from my university. I went to Moody, a theology school in Chicago (although the founder, the famous evangelist D.L. Moody preferred to call it a “Bible School”; theology school I’m guessing sounding too pompous). He was a simpler man (not meaning unintelligent, as people think these days, but humble as it was originally intended. Humility, now there’s a forgotten trait—); and from simple men come the great reformations and revivals. How many simple men can you name?

As I was going down, in between “Can you believe XXX said XXX” – UNFRIEND; and “Are people still stupid enough to think XXX” – UNFRIEND; I came across the post from Moody, “What is the Lord teaching you today?”

Our God works more with questions than He does with answers; and this question made me think.

Every night I read devotions to my little boy. He’s six, and we’ve been doing it for – well for six years. 2190 nights of devotions, give or take a few for trips or long overnight flights on airplanes or when somebody is sick. Repetition; that is the thing they never tell you about raising a child. Adults like variety; like exotic things and changing environments and new ideas. Raising a child is all about repetitiveness and constancy. I once had a gardener in Mali who was not the sharpest; one day I came home and noticed the hedges had grown out of control a few weeks after pruning. “You must trim the hedges again,” I told him. He looked at me quizzically, “But I did that.” Raising a child is like being a gardener; the same things over and over and over again until they take the form that you feel they should. The story of creation. The Exodus and the Judges and the Kings – Jesus and the apostles. And again to creation. Each time his little mind picking up on something more, something new, something different. A new truth as he awakens into rationality. Three feedings a day (my wife does most of this); a bath. Play. Reading a book. Waking up. Glass of milk. Tennis practice, swimming practice, piano practice, bicycle practice. He needs the consistency; it’s what will give him his sense of security, the concrete foundation from which he will surge into the world.

“You can have roots and wings,” a famous movie quote goes. You must have roots in order to have wings – better said.

patiencePatience. That is the answer I came up with. From that question above. Patience is what I’m learning. That one is hard – isn’t it? We become bored; almost six years in the poverty of West Africa has made me itch a little (ok, let’s be honest, its stifling). We chafe at the routine. The ordinary. The tedious. That is part of human nature. We want freedom before we can handle it; we want money before we are responsible for it; we want power before we understand it. We want success – in whatever we are doing – before having the character and stamina to survive it.

Patience. I read a lot – and much of what I read are books from banned authors. So many of them went to jail. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn; Natan Sharansky; Nelson Mandela; Yeonmi Park (whose whole country is a prison) – the years in jail polishing off their immaturity with that worst hardest sandpaper of all – waiting to be set free, perhaps patiently but I’m guessing often also despairing. I often wonder how they survived; and especially reading Solzhenitsyn and his accounts of the Gulag I am shocked and stunned. And humbled. Because my impatience seems so mean compared to their breathtaking feats of endurance.

There you have it, perhaps less elaborate than what I usually write but something I’ve been thinking about. Life moves so slowly for so long and then accelerates in an epic surge. Or not. Best to be ready; to read and write and think and harden the cement under my little boy’s feet. Because patience is, often times, also a gift.

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On Privacy

We have all heard the old mantra from the dictatorships which goes something like this, “Who cares if people know what you’re doing. As long as you are following the law you have nothing to worry about.” Until of course those very laws turn against free men and our natural rights of life, liberty and property. And, when that happens, behind which fig leaf can we hide after having exposed ourselves before a world which revels in the profane and the intimate made public?

privacy

That is a good enough reason for privacy. A secret place to be alone with our thoughts where there, at least, we are free to explore the limitlessness of the human experience without the fear of the censors we always seem to have with us. Fahrenheit 451; Brave New World; 1984. More so today than perhaps in any time in my lifetime, as our world does seem somehow dystopian these days.

This, however, is not a good enough reason. For it is too extreme, to talk of dictatorship and book-burning in America elicits yawns and eye-rolls. I have been pondering privacy a great deal lately. One might believe, and in the 21st century we are surely told, that privacy is important for us to keep our sins to ourselves. Privacy is a dirty place, full of nasty videos or racist thoughts or uncharitable behavior. If it were not so, why would we feel any tinge of nervousness having a google-chip read our mind to free-post our daily lives on Facebook? “What do you have to worry about, if your thoughts are wholly wholesome?”

This argument, like the previous one, is also dangerous. It is dangerous because it sounds like it should be right and it does not allow space for argument. “Tell me what you’re thinking!” and why would you not, unless you were thinking something wicked? “I should be able to think my wicked thoughts, without judgement!” you respond; admitting that you are a sinful man and your private places foul and vulgar.

That is wrong.

The attack on privacy is not an attack on individuals – not really. It is an attack on objective truth. Kierkegaard once wrote, “When the question about truth is asked objectively, truth is reflected upon objectively as an object to which the knower relates himself. What is reflected upon is not the relation but that what he relates himself to is the truth, the true. If only that to which he relates himself is the truth, the true, then the subject is in the truth. When the question about truth is asked subjectively, the individual’s relation is reflected upon subjectively. If only the how of this relation is in truth, the individual is in truth, even if he in this way were to relate himself to untruth.” The definition of subjectivity is, “taking place within the mind and modified by individual bias.” No truth exists, therefore I must know more about you, before I decide whether or not to believe what you are telling me.

Therein lies the problem.

Objective truth assures us that there is a single reality which is applicable to everybody; just as real as the laws of gravity or thermodynamics. This singularity is comforting because it allows us a bar, a weight or a measure against which to judge actions and ideas – not people – to see if we find them wanting or not. Thomas Jefferson wrote an amazing declaration, notwithstanding the fact that he held slaves. Martin Luther King Junior told us about his dream, a dream that did not become less real – less true – when we learned he had been unfaithful. The modern subjective world seeks to free us from this. They wish to selectively judge and interpret ideas based upon the vessel from which they were poured. If the idea is judged valuable – that is, if it is consistent with the post-modern ideas of subjectivity and victimization and intersectionality – then the flawed vessel is accepted. If the ideas are seen as going against the prevailing winds, well then they can easily be discarded by finding a crack or smudge upon the decanter to push it aside as one would a glass of dirty water, the filth having contaminated the entire drought.

This of course is trouble, because objective truth remains – independent of the mouthpiece. Because the role of truth is to challenge power; and truth is always uncomfortable to those dealing in pull. And because private thoughts that are noble might therefore be cast as ignoble by the prevailing winds, an anti-morality which has become common judging the fates of chicken restaurant owners and cake bakers in a post-modern world which accepts only subjectivity, and allow ideas which are modern-day-uncomfortable to be pushed aside more easily. Incidentally, this is often called “ad hominem” and is one of the great logical fallacies – but how many students of knowledge have studied these ancient rules of civilized understanding and debate?

Imagine if what survived to us of Plato was not The Republic but instead a tawdry little tell-all about his affairs and indiscretions. What if Aristotle had left us not with Ethics but instead with a series of selfies and recordings of him telling vulgar jokes. What if De La Republica had not become Cicero’s legacy to the world after the Roman mobs goaded on by their ephemeral leaders angry at his challenges decided to use his private affairs against him. Should so-great a lesson in decency as was the life of Billy Graham be abandoned because he was pro-life, and a creationist – ideas not popular in our subjective world?

Privacy frees us from the disappointments we must indubitably suffer upon learning that the great men and women we admire are also human; thereby allowing us to retain our hope and our sense of humanity’s epic struggles. And it allows us to keep back some of the nobility we hide within, nobility which is often unpopular and by which our enemies would destroy us – allowing us to choose our battles carefully as philosophers throughout history have always done.

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