Surrounded

Another day. Everyday the same day. I walk across the parking lot, past the bunkers, past the little shops. There’s no line for coffee today. As soon as I enter the shop, the squirrelly little guy behind the counter is calling out my order to his crew before I even say a word. I don’t have the heart to change my order today.

Heading back, I stop in the parking lot and spend the last few minutes before the Ed Center opens talking with Fatmir as he finishes up a cigarette and coffee. We don’t talk about anything important, and somehow, that’s important.

Just another day. Everyday the same day. Only today, I can see the mountains; still snow-covered in mid-April. For a moment, as I breathe in the crisp morning air, I forget about the planes taking off, the helicopters over head, the armored vehicles rolling up and down the road, the soldiers, the enemy. I forget about the war, though everything around me is here to remind me of it.

Except for the mountains.

Surrounded by the Hindu Kush mountains at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan.
Surrounded by the Hindu Kush mountains at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan. April 2011.

On becoming a fighter

“Are you a fighter?”

“Well, not really…”

“If you want anything around here, you’ve got to be a fighter.”

This advice came to me within my first twenty-four hours in Afghanistan. Understanding and heeding this advice would have made the next five months much more tolerable.

Fatmir was in his early 50s and had worked for our company for quite a long time. He was from Kosovo and learned to speak English ‘on the job’, which by that point was very good. At Bagram he worked in the education center computer lab.

I became a second-hand smoker in Afghanistan. I’d hang out with Fatmir and some of the others during their morning, afternoon, evening, and ‘whenever’ smoke breaks and just shoot the breeze. I joked that this was the best way to smoke because it didn’t cost me anything and I could truly quit at any time.

Fatmir’s advice wasn’t about being aggressive or greedy; it was just about fighting for what was right. In this case, a bed. Before I naively walked down to the housing office he shared that pearl of wisdom with me. I didn’t really understand it so I didn’t go in fighting, I went in optimistic. I walked out on a waiting list. Number 387 or something like that. I would later find out that the list was arbitrary, that it would never really move, and that I was wasting my time checking in every week; there would never be a room for me in Bagram.

Five months later, after the supervisor for all the education centers in country (a fighter, apparently) threatened to shut down all educational testing at Bagram, I was finally given a room. I use the term ‘room’ because you’re likely familiar with the basic concept: walls, door, roof, floor. ‘Plywood box’ is closer to the reality. Far from the shipping container apartment I was hoping for, but beggars can’t be choosy.

My plywood home away from home
My plywood home away from home
I lived in my office for most of my time at Bagram
My live-work space: I lived in my office (the testing center) for most of my time at Bagram

When I left Afghanistan, I can’t really say that I had become a fighter, but I did learn that some things in life will require a fight. Not out of greed or pride; not even out of entitlement. Some things require you to fight to prove how much you want it. To you, to others. That you’re not just like all the others that could take it or leave it. That you’re not just all talk. That your words lead to action, like that guy selling everything to buy the pearl of great price.

The real wisdom is in knowing what is worth fighting for.

My parents had been married less than a year before the Army began putting their marriage to the test. My dad was being transferred to Italy but my mom hadn’t yet received her visa. The Army told my dad to go on without her and they’d fly her out once she had her visa. No deal. Despite potentially being a bad career move, he told the Army no. So they waited in Korea until she had her visa, and they both traveled to Italy together. I keep this story close at hand when I think about what kind of husband I want to be; that I’m called to be. It reminds me that career, status, duty all are nothing when compared to loving my wife:

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word
Ephesians 5:25-26

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
1 Corinthians 13:1-3

There will be little reward in heaven for the man who wins the souls of the lost, or gives up the comforts of home to serve the poor if he neglects to love his wife as Christ loves the church.

The Sandwich of Great Price

How far would you walk for a sandwich? Half a mile? Maybe a mile, for a great sandwich. Jimmy John’s delivers sandwiches, you know. Safe to say, I wouldn’t walk very far.

This, apparently, is where my dad and I differ.

It’s the early 70’s. Miami. A young student has just enough money each day for both lunch and his bus fare to get home from school. He’s a student at Miami Jackson High School, which is in Miami. My dad’s family had moved out of the city, but he didn’t want to change schools so he would catch a ride into the city with a neighbor and take the city bus back home. Apparently, there was a great food stand next to the bus stop and one day my dad was faced with a dilemma: spend the bus fare on the bus or spend it on a sandwich and walk home. He chose the sandwich.

Fast forward to 2012. Our family is in Florida for my grandmother’s funeral. While in the city, running errands and sorting out last minute details, we drive past my dad’s old school. The story of the Bus-Stop Sandwich resurfaces and my brother and I start to think “this seems a little far from home…”. We map it out when we get back. It was a little far from home.

Eight Miles.

Miami Map

Well, Google says 8.4 miles to be exact. Now, you’d expect the story would finish with “and that was the last time I did that”, but it doesn’t. This became routine. For forty years he never knew exactly how far he walked for that sandwich. I’m not sure knowing the distance would have made any difference. It was a Cuban sandwich after all.

Sometimes a sandwich is more than a sandwich. Sometimes what is ordinary to most turns out to be extraordinary to maybe just one person. Certainly a lot of people bought sandwiches from that shop, but I doubt many were willing to pay that kind of price. But, when it’s worth it to you, you’re willing to do whatever it takes.

It reminds me of a story in the Bible that Jesus tells. He says that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls. When he found one of great price he went and sold everything he had so he could buy it. That must have been some sandwich… I mean, pearl 🙂

And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Mark 10:21

The time I broke my arm

I broke my arm in the fifth grade. The fifth grade itself was a bit fractured for me; I went to three different schools that year. We moved to Wiesbaden, Germany in October of 1992. I usually don’t tell people we moved to Wiesbaden because we were only there a few weeks and I think I went to school there only two or three days. We couldn’t have been in Frankfurt for more than 6 months or so before I broke my arm, so I tend to file it away as a part of my ‘welcome to Germany’ experience. Now, if anyone tells you that I tripped over a soccer ball, don’t buy it. These allegations have been propagated by people (my family) who weren’t even there at the time of the incident. This is what happened… Okay, I don’t remember all the details, but I do remember playing soccer and I do remember falling, and I think I had the ball… anyway, I definitely remember that my arm did not look okay. I was escorted to the school nurse who called my dad at work. My dad takes me to the hospital ‘on post’ (there wasn’t actually a post in Frankfurt; the Army was spread out over the city) where he filled out some paperwork, I’m x-rayed, have my fracture reset, cast put on, and we pop into the pharmacy on our way out to fill my prescription. Apparently, a tiny fracture in one of the bones in my forearm warranted a cast that went all the way up my arm. An old school, heavy plaster cast. The Army was gracious enough to give me an olive-drab cloth to make a sling with. Unfortunately for me, it was my left arm which meant I had to try to learn to write with my right hand. My teacher wasn’t very sympathetic. Señor Figueroa would say “Paul! Your handwriting is atrocious!”. I knew he was joking, though this was the same guy that made us copy definitions from the dictionary when we got in trouble:

“One hundred definitions! And if I hear another word out of you, it’ll be double! Got it?”

“Yes.”

“Two hundred definitions!”

He yelled a lot, now that I think about it… and we copied a lot of definitions that year.

There really isn’t a point to this story. I was going to try to tie this into a bigger story of how my view of America is different, or something like that, but I don’t really want to. I just wanted to tell the story. Every now and then I get really nostalgic, longing to go back to this period of my life. So much of how I see the world was shaped by my experiences there. Even mundane day to day tasks were adventures and I suppose that’s what I miss the most. If I’m honest, the thought of ‘settling down’ here scares me. It doesn’t feel right. I don’t feel like I fit in. This doesn’t feel like home.

Just for fun, I found the hospital where they fixed me up on Google Maps:

Google Maps image of the old 97th General Hospital in Frankfurt, now the American Consulate
Google Maps image of the old 97th General Hospital in Frankfurt, now the American Consulate

I love you because…

“But why? Tell me, WHY do you love me? Why me?”

I’ve been asked a lot of questions in my life. When I was in JROTC in high school, we’d have to answer questions like “what is an azimuth?”. Well, that is a horizontal, clockwise angle measured from a known reference point. But the one question (either explicitly asked of me or implied) that has continually stumped me is why do you love me?”. I’ve never had a good answer for that.

Unfortunately for me, it’s not enough to be in love today; there must be sound reasoning behind it. And, generally, I like to think of myself as a ‘thinker’; one who slow-cooks problems until a solution is yielded at the gentlest prod of a fork (I’m literally slow-cooking a roast right now, so, this may get ‘meaty’). Since no amount of cooking or prodding has given me an answer (and, since I’ve seemingly abandoned all logic and reasoning when it comes to love) I thought I’d take a different approach. I don’t know. I don’t know why, I just know I do.

Don’t misunderstand: I love your smile! Not your ‘pose for pictures’ smile; your natural one that is so big you nearly have your eyes closed. And I love that you’re kindhearted and have a gentle spirit. I’ve got a whole list of things like this that I love about you; but none of that is why I love you.

I love you because Christ first loved me.

I had been told that Jesus loved me, but I was skeptical. Why did He love me? What did He see in me that was worth loving? Those questions revealed more about me than anything else. What I was really saying was “you can’t love me” and “there’s nothing about me worth loving”. My question of ‘why’ was my declaration of unbelief–I didn’t really believe that God loved me.

But, God never stopped pursuing me. I doubted; He loved me. I accused Him of lying; He loved me. And then, when I wasn’t expecting it, I heard Him for the first time say ‘I love you’. Looking back, it wasn’t His first time to tell me, but it was the first time I heard it. The whole time I had been busy asking ‘why me’ and expecting an answer that started with ‘I love you because…’ and I was missing all the things He was doing for me and saying ‘…because I love you’.

I will never leave you nor forsake you, because I love you.
I will not forget you; I have engraved you upon the palms of my hands, because I love you.
At the right time, while you were still sick in sin, I sent my Son to die to pay for your sin in full, because I love you.

In the end, it isn’t about you. And it isn’t about me. It isn’t about a potential ‘us’. Love, friendship, marriage; it’s an opportunity to give God the glory and demonstrate the love He has for us.

“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” 1 John 4:7-12

“We love because He first loved us.” 1 John 4:19