Welcome to Accrabatics

In January of 2010 amidst a “mid-course correction” (my friend Carl’s positive spin off of the usual “crisis”) I learned that a long-held dream to join the Foreign Service was still and option, and I decided to put feet on the dream.  I studied for the exam for two months, took it and passed it in March, wrote a series of essays (relying on some pretty tight editor friends) in April, received an invitation to the Oral Assessments (OAs–very involved interview/evaluation) in June, worked with some great fellow candidates to prepare for the OAs throughout the summer, took and passed the OA on September 7th (with several great folks that have either finished training or will soon start), uncharacteristically flew through medical and security clearances (not without thinking I had had or was having a heart attack in the process), had an offer on November 10th, sorted and weeded and packed out my worldly possessions acquired over several decades, and started training on Valentine’s day 2011 with the 159th A-100 class of Foreign Service Generalists (FSO — O meaning Officer) for the United States Department of State.  Many weeks of training later, I landed in Accra, Ghana for my first posting as a consular officer–almost a year to the day that I learned I’d been invited to the OA.  I’m still reeling.

Accrabatics are my impressions of being a new FSO in Accra, Ghana.

Christmas moment

Cap’n Jack’s ChristmasCap’n Jack on Christmas morning, thanks to Santa Paws.

The slideshare embed isn’t working, so for the series of pictures go to . . .


Lessons and carols

Years ago I started listening to the live BBC broadcast of the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols at Kings College Chapel Cambridge via my public radio station. A couple of years ago I tuned it to find my station wasn’t picking up the feed and I was devastated . . . until I realized I could listen to the live stream on the internet. So here I am, in Chicago on Christmas Eve, and thanks to BBC4, I am also present in the worldwide audience for Lessons and Carols yet again, and all is as it should be.

I always get choked up thinking about the boy sopranos as they wait for the nod from the conductor, all (hopefully) prepared for the Once in Royal David’s City opening solo. I wonder though, are they all nervous, or are any of them thinking “There are x sopranos so I have a 1 in x chance of being chosen so I won’t worry about it.” Is it better not knowing, or better knowing it’s not you, or, even better knowing it is you?

I went caroling myself yesterday afternoon for the first time in years. It was a perfect day. Cold enough to be winter (it had been almost 50 degrees the day before), snowing, and intermittently sunny. We had glögwein beforehand and practiced “Baby it’s Cold Outside” and “Christmas time is here” and “Jingle Bell Rock” and other songs that I’m not sure could actually be called carols. I think the only carols we actually sang were “Silent Night” and “Adeste Fideles.”

HippocrasWe sang “O Christmas Tree” to the lonely Christmas trees yet to be adopted from the Christmas tree lot. We sang in the hardware store and the shoe store and the toy store. We caroled for an expat Welshman, and his daughter came out in stocking feet holding a large plate of cookies, shivering but refusing to budge from her hospitable duty until we had all taken one. We got a kick out of singing “Here we come a wassailing” for someone who actually know what wassail was. At another house a Japanese woman giggled with delight and grabbed her camera, having been told people come to your door and sing but never having seen it. She requested “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” and brought us chocolate. We returned cold in body and warm in spirit and celebrated with more glögwein and rum cake.

It’s been a wonderful, creative advent, and I’ve felt the Christmas spirit for the first time in years. I had a run of life trauma around Christmastime for a few years, and, combined with being single without kids, Christmas left me. Well, not Christmas itself, but the trappings of the Christmas that had been traditional in my life left me, and it’s taken awhile for it to come back.

This evening I go to my mom’s house. Tonight I carol and worship at church. Tomorrow I go to my mom’s house, and for one of very few times in life my brother and I won’t see each other on Christmas day. I always woke him up, in person at 4am in childhood, so we could meander past the booby traps to the tree as soon as possible, and later over the phone, telling him to get over to my mom’s place so we could open presents as soon as possible. Last year we got in a big fight and this year my mom figured we should just stay apart. That’s been fine with me up until now, but for some reason, as emotionally distant as we are, Christmas is the one day it feels like he’s supposed to be there. The Christmas spirit must definitely be back.

Visit my Christmas greeting here

Ghosts of Christmas Past

I got my tree yesterday, one that smells like a tree. I figured if it didn’t smell like a tree I should just get an artificial tree and scented oils. It’s more expensive but one of few things I do for me. Single and living alone, I still deserve a Christmas tree and a houseful of decorations.

My friend Virginia helped me this year, and took her job seriously. I laughed as she told me where certain ornaments would go–several of them, she insisted on the mantle instead of the tree. I’ve never decorated my mantle with anything other than the cards and a couple of candles. Now I have lots of little scenes of animals and snowmen and Santas.

Christmas mantle 1Christmas mantle 2Christmas mantle 3Christmas mantle 4

Then my friend Mary came and I let her put the Virgin Mary ornament on the tree. Virginia and Mary are appropriate names for this time of year!

Memories merge at this time of year. Each Christmas becomes every Christmas and I’m every age I’ve ever been with every person I’ve ever known. From a 1989 Christmas letter:

This year we got a real Christmas tree and have decorated it with lights and ornaments from around the world and around the generations of our families. As the sky darkened this afternoon we sat and listened to Paul’s high school choir’s Christmas album and just looked at the tree. Our own tree. Not our parents or siblings’ or friends’ or parents of friends’ or schools’ or churches’ tree. It was a comforting as well as scary feeling of rootedness. New tradition grafted onto lots and lots of old ones from around the world and around the generations of our families. And I smiled.

And another from our Merry-Christmas-we’re-getting-a-divorce letter in 1992:

Ritual is salutary. Each year the sights and sounds and dramas of Christmas take me back to every Christmas before. I remember who I was with, where I was, and what I was doing. I remember the interminable Christmas eves of childhood, and the interminable Christmas eve when I traveled by subway, train, airplanes and car from Germany to Brussels to Chicago after my term in Italy. I remember the first snows during reading period or exam week in college that somehow broke the stress of the time. I remember Christmases with my dad, now gone for two years, and Christmases without him. This year I remember Christmases with Paul, in Chicago or Mexico or Minneapolis. We developed our own rituals over the years that are as much Christmas to me as the Jackson Five Christmas album has been for most of my life. I remember because we are celebrating our last Christmas together.

So this year I visualized the metaphor, tessellating photos of my trees of Christmas past and present into one giant everytree, as this Christmas becomes yet another giant everyChristmas. Amen.

Tessellating Trees

. . .

Do(ve) nothing

Maintaining balance

Ice laced stairs
Deceptively beautiful ice-laced porch, 12/12/07

It’s been really icy here in Chicago lately. I’ve spent quite a bit of time sliding along in shoes-as-skates trying not to fall. I was talking to my chiropractor, Dr. Johnson, today and he said “The best way to maintain your balance is to be dedicated to your direction.”

After a moment I said “You know, that’s actually a wonderful metaphor.” He told me he hadn’t thought of it that way–and he didn’t really seem to think that way even after I mentioned it. I think he deals more in the actual than the metaphor, which is probably a salutary thing for a doctor. I, however, am a poet, and a mathematician, and an artist, and all deal greatly with metaphor.

Fire mazeMany people ask me– especially now in my unemployed state, and at other times when I was looking to move into something new–“What do you want to do?” And, you know, I rarely can answer that question with a vocation or even a specific job. My 22 year old idealism is still active at 44, and I want to do interesting, creative, and challenging work, with interesting and creative people, that makes a positive contribution to people’s lives or the world.

That doesn’t narrow things down much, and, as you may remember from a few posts back, I don’t want to define myself by “not”s, either essentially or experientially. So obviously I was slipping around a lot on the icy option-laden surface my life, having a heck of a time trying to maintain some balance.

Last year, as my most recent vocational struggle was beginning, my friend David Rapier told me, “Backup plans are called backup plans because they may you back up.” So I detached the tether and I am now taking the time I need to sync with my internal compass, choose a direction–be it in process or destination–and move forward.

Learning to believe

This morning as I was walking Cap’n Jack, I met a friendly labradoodle sporting a smashing Harrod’s collar. We owners asked after each dog’s breed (Cap’n Jack is a French bulldog/border terrier mix), and I mentioned the collar. She laughed that I was the first to notice it, and, somewhat embarrassed, told me her kids insisted on buying the dog a present in London. We started talking about our respective trips to London (hers this past summer, mine in 1983), especially the fun we had just hanging around, watching people, visiting churches and free museums, riding the tube and double-decker buses, and relaxing in the parks. I loved afternoon tea; her kids were “underwhelmed.”

So today I share a painting of a field in or near the Lake District, and a song I wrote when I was about to leave. I apologize that I was losing my voice at that point in the show . . .

English Field

Here’s the audio introducing the song (immediately following as song about Italy which I’m talking about at the beginning). It sets up my life immediately before that summer, which made that trip so transformational for me.

Some memories are indelible.