thirty five

Twenty years ago I chose to memorize John Masefield’s Sea Fever for an assignment in school. I’m fairly confident my choice was based on how easy I perceived the poem would be, rather than any desire to be near the sea. I can picture myself reciting each line to my patient teacher, but otherwise it hadn’t made much of an impression on me.

2016 was rough, but I was able to leave a part of my past in the past forever, finally. My debt. Specifically my student loans. I finally became debt free last year and it is an amazing feeling. Payday is a celebration now instead of a painful reminder of past obligations which were carelessly signed for. I learned a lot from debt, and I am glad to move on to a new teacher.

To celebrate my financial freedom, and my Dad’s retirement, our family went on a vacation to New Zealand. Honestly it felt like going home. A lot has changed during the six years since my last visit, but what hasn’t changed is the way and pace of life. I can’t really explain it, so I won’t try; you’ll just have to experience it yourself. ☺

Now that we’re back, my family can’t stop talking about NZ to everyone who will listen, much like I did (and still do). They get it now; what I was so excited about, and why I’m still trying to find my way back.

Texas has been a good home to me, but it isn’t home. It’s just one of many, not the first; just the place I’ve lived the longest, which is hardly the best criteria for establishing one’s home. It’s much too flat here, and much too dry here. I was born between the mountains and the sea.

I saw a poem hanging on the wall of our beachfront apartment in Ahipara, NZ. The name and the author weren’t familiar to me, but the first line was all I needed to jog my memory. Twenty years later and I finally understand.

 

 


Sea Fever by John Masefield

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

No safer place

I was going through some old emails and found this letter that I sent to my family and friends while I was in Afghanistan. I’ve never had any real ‘near death’ experiences in my life that I can recall, but this was one of those ‘close calls’ that gave me a chance to really consider what it was that I believed. Looking back, I see this season of my life as an opportunity to grow in my faith and deepen my dependency on Christ to provide for my needs. He is my strength and shield.


May, 2011

Hello friends and family,

This update has been a work in progress. I started jotting things down on paper and on my laptop as they came to me and slowly I’ve been piecing them together into this update. I’ll try to be as detailed yet as brief as possible (for me).

Life here is, well, difficult but I’m starting to have a better attitude about it all. While the thought “what am I doing here?” was a frequent one my first several weeks here, the question has all but gone from my thoughts. Not to say that I have found some “purpose” for being here that is of any significance, I just have more of an assurance that God has not let me wander into anything He hasn’t already prepared for me; that I am here intentionally, for whatever reason that may be. Maybe simply to endure a little hardship. Regardless, I’m not leaving any time soon.

We had two close (close is a relative term; to some people on base it was more than just ‘close’) rocket attacks last week; my first experience. I tried to recall what was going on and what was going through my head as best I could.

Tuesday, May 3, around 8:30pm

As I’m leaving the testing center and heading to the main education center office (just a few feet away) we hear (and feel) a very loud BOOM! Now there are a lot of loud noises around here that we don’t even flinch at any more, unless they are accompanied by the percussive “thud” that you feel in your chest. At first I thought that they had set off another controlled explosion and forgot to give us the warning (or I had missed it). Then I heard a second one, followed by the air raid siren and “Incoming!, Incoming!, Incoming!” As I rushed out the Ed Center, more explosions and I saw a stream of soldiers and airmen running for the bunker. More like sprinting. Then we wait. 30 minutes before we get the “All Clear”.

Friday, May 6, around 8:30pm (again)

Since the last rocket attack I’ve been a bit more jumpy. On Wednesday or Thursday there were a few ground attacks during the day; these I don’t worry to much about because we’re not close to any of the gates or the fence. As I was getting ready to head over to the Ed Center (maybe there’s a pattern here?), I hear the air raid siren go off. I pause, waiting for the instructions that always follow. “Shelter in place” is what I’m expecting to hear, since I hadn’t heard any explosions. “Incoming! Incoming! Incoming!” My heart begins to race as I pick up my body armor, putting it on and locking up the office on my way out the door. The bunker scene is a bit more relaxed, probably because this one wasn’t as close (I didn’t even hear it). We can hear helicopters taking off as we wait. Then planes. Ground attack siren goes off. I still don’t have a clue what was going on, but after about 10 minutes at the bunker they gave the “Shelter in place”, meaning less of an immediate threat. Since we weren’t even IN the bunker (it was full) anyway, we decide to wait it out in the Ed Center (still wearing IBA). Over the next 20 minutes we heard 3 ambulances rush by. More planes. Heavy vehicles. Then, eventually, “All Clear”. We found out later that two people were injured in that attack, just “up the road” from the Education Center.

I’m still trying to process all of that. It’s all certainly put me a bit more on edge, and I sleep with my IBA next to my cot. All in all, I still feel safe here. It’s a big space, and while they have to land somewhere, it’s probably not going to be where I’m at.

“Though Satan should buffet*, though trials should come,
let this blest assurance control;
That Christ has regarded my helpless estate
and hath shed His own blood for my soul.”

*buffet is a military term meaning ‘to strike repeatedly and violently’.

Life isn’t just a random game of chance. God hasn’t just left us to fend for ourselves as if to say “See you on the other side. Good luck.” As Horatio Spafford wrote in the hymn above, Christ knows and has considered, the helpless state we’re in; His blood wasn’t spilled in vain, nor was it done in a way that was out of His control (as if to say it was the consequence of man’s actions); it was done deliberately, and specifically to save (let every believer say with me) MY soul. If my life was bought with such a high price, I can say with confidence that I won’t be an unexpected visitor when I finally reach Home. That doesn’t mean I’m guaranteed tomorrow, but it does mean I’m guaranteed every day God has set before me, however many that may be.

“My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there were none of them.” Psalm 139:15-16

I could not be in a safer place than right here with God.

Thank you again for your prayers and your e-mails.

Grace and Peace,
Paul

The best cup of coffee I’ve ever had

I haven’t always liked coffee. As usual with my life, there’s a ridiculous story to go along with how I started drinking coffee. It was May of 2005 and it all started with a good, no, a great salesman.

“This coffee is grown in a high altitude, volcanic region of Guatemala. It’s really good for you! It can cure cancer!”

He said something like that. I wasn’t interested. My brother and I had wandered into this cigar, rum, and coffee house in San Pedro, Belize. Neither of us smoked, and neither of us drank coffee, so I can’t seem to recall what the draw was for us…

I kindly explain to the guy that I don’t drink coffee.

“Just try some, you’ll like it.”

It was at least 105 degrees Fahrenheit (40 C) outside and it was still mid-morning. I had zero interest in a hot, bitter cup of coffee, regardless of this guy’s miraculous claims. But he persisted. I’m fairly certain he never actually heard me say ‘No’ despite my repeating it at each of his requests. His persistence finally wore down my defenses; I yielded to the pressure and tried my first sip of real coffee.

I say ‘real’ coffee because I had grown up making ‘coffee’ for my mom; Taster’s Choice instant coffee… and I had tried just enough Folgers/Maxwell House to know definitively that I did not like coffee.

But this wasn’t bad.

Then, he added a little sugar.

Now, now it was pretty good.

Then, he proceeded to add some rum cream.

I had to draw the line here. I mean, we were here with a church group on a mission trip and it’s like 10am. Again, I tried to resist but, when I wasn’t looking, he slipped in a few drops, enough to change the colour from deep black to a rich, creamy caramel.

I didn’t want to be rude at this point.

To this day, this was the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had.

So we bought a pound of coffee beans (no, we had to pass on the rum cream). Never mind that neither of us had any way to make coffee. Never mind that neither of us had any way to grind these coffee beans. It would be several months before either of us could enjoy our purchase. Greatest salesman I’ve ever met. And I’ve loved coffee ever since.

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.

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