Saturday, May 25, 2013

Farewell, Taipei

Thanks, Taipei.   Thanks for being the nest that has nourished and protected our new family during this important year. We’ll always have a soft spot for this country and we hope to keep Taiwanese people and culture in our lives after we move back into our own culture.

What have I learned from this city?  For starters, I’ve learned how to be kind and hospitable to foreigners, how to cook tofu a thousand different delicious ways, how to live in a 200 square foot apartment comfortably, and how to blend urban convenience with a small-town feel.  Most importantly, the incredible affordability of the city has given me the economic freedom to do a job that really matters – being a full-time caregiver, teacher, and partner to my son.

Taiwan will be missed, but I am very eager to anchor myself and the family closer to our beloved family.  Taiwan has been a terrific home, but there is no substitute for family.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Happy Birthday to Abel

Abel has some pretty simple material needs at this point in his life - clean clothes, nutritious food, and some blocks, boxes and sticks for playing.  His material needs are simple, but his need for emotional connection and belonging are profound.  For his 1st birthday I decided to write him a letter in lieu of buying lots of toys. We'll make sure he has fun stuff to play with, but I hope he will appreciate this gift more when he is an adult, or a parent himself. Although I wrote this as a personal letter to Abel, I decided that I would like to share it because it fits in a theme of my writing this year - growing into parenthood.  I've done a lot of growing thanks to Abel and I look forward to many more years of growing with my little man.


Dear Abel,

You’ve taught me so much in one year.  I always imagined that as a father I would do the teaching and you would do the learning, but that is far from the truth. I have learned more about humanity, love, language, and myself from you this year than I have in all of my previous years as an adult. Actually, I don’t believe I became an adult until a year ago when I saw you emerge as a perfectly formed human, completely capable, yet totally dependent on me for protection and love.  Until that moment, I was still clinging to my own childhood.  Thank you for helping me to become a man.

Although I have been doing most of the learning in our relationship, I do hope to guide your learning as you grow.  I have no doubt that you will learn language, math, social skills, reading, and athletics with ease – you have already proved to be an incredibly adept learner.  What I hope to instill in you is not a set of specific skills, but a way of being in the world.  Your mother and I had a beloved professor who said it best, “open your heart and open your mind”.  These were her parting words to her children when she dropped them off at school, and I think they are simple words which contain profound wisdom.

Open Heart

Being a child is hard and growing up is a painful process.  You will be hurt more times than you can count.  People will do terrible things to you. You will be involved in unfortunate events that will cause you emotional pain.  These things will happen to you and there is nothing I can do to stop them. 

You cannot stop many of life’s painful experiences, but you can control your reaction to these events.  Your heart and soul may feel so wounded and hurt that you want nothing more than to hide your emotions close yourself off to anything that may be able to hurt you in that way again.  You must fight this defensive urge and continue to open your hear to the people and experiences that make life worth living.  Experience the pain, but don’t retreat from it.  Learn from your experiences and let yourself be open to embrace beauty wherever you find it. 

Being a child is hard, but it is full of wonder.  You may be hurt, but you will also be loved.  Some people may do terrible things, but look for the kindness in all humanity.  Unfortunate events will happen, but always focus on the beauty and good-fortune that surrounds you.  All aspects of your life will contain a positive and negative element and I hope to teach you that looking past the negative and opening your heart to the beauty of life is an infinitely better way to live.

Open Mind

Your mind is yours. I love you unconditionally, irrespective of your opinions, beliefs, view, and attitudes.  I have no intentions of teaching you what you should believe, but I do hope to teach you a deep respect the diversity of views in our world.  You are entitled to your own opinion, but your opinion is the product of your unique set of experiences and circumstances.  An open mind allows us to learn from others and to understand our own position in the world more clearly. Without an open mind learning is distorted and shallow.

Clutching on to a belief or view can be extremely comforting in a tumultuous world.  Everything seems to be moving and changing at an inconceivable pace, so it is reassuring to anchor yourself to a fixed position in the sea of information.  This can be comforting and safe, but it can also be dangerous.  The world is transforming rapidly, but I don’t believe that struggling against the change is the best way to live.  All life evolves.  All living creatures alive today have one thing in common – they adapt to a changing world.  Adaptation is the key to survival for all life, and our world requires adapting at a pace not seen by our ancestors.   Change should not be feared, it should be anticipate and embraced.

Embracing change is not the same as drifting aimlessly with the current.  While opinions and views should be constantly reexamined in a changing world, values can remain constant.  This is the essence of what I hope to teach you in this letter – valuing an open mind and an open heart will help guide your through experiences and changes that I cannot anticipate.  I believe Valuing beauty, love, kindness, and embracing the complexity and transformative nature of the world will help you to live gracefully and happily in the future regardless of what it has in store for you.


My only wish for you is that you are happy.  These humble words are my best effort to guide you to that end.  I’m sure that in ten or twenty years, you will have taught me a great deal more about how to live and I may have very different words of guidance for you.  We are growing together and learning together.  I could not be more happy to have you and your mother as partners in this journey.

Monday, May 6, 2013

You Can Never Go Home Again

That is the adage that you hear over and over, “you can never go home again”.  I never understood that cliché, even after I became older and left home.  Sure, home always changes, but so did I.  As I matured and my visits home became more sporadic, it seemed that the ability to go home again was one of the few certainties in life.  I changed a lot in my twenties, and my family underwent a major transformation, but I could always go home to Silex, Missouri and the community was blissfully unchanged.

The static nature of Silex was something I always took for granted.  My family history dates back to the founding of the town in the mid-1800’s.  Both sides of my family have been in the same rural area for over 150 years, and in that span of time little has changed.  The town has stagnated for the last half a century due to the constant threat of flooding from the nearby Cuivre River.  The ambitious plans for the town laid out by my great-great-grandfather were never realized due the unpredictable flow of this small tributary of the Mississippi.  Silex has remained roughly the same size for most of its history.  It once functioned as a regional hub and its main street was filled with diverse and vibrant businesses, but these family owned shops closed down one-by-one as locals traveled farther to larger stores in nearby towns.  Main streets across the country shared this slow death caused by Wal-Mart and Home Depot.

The Silex of my childhood may not have been as vibrant as it was during my grandparents’ youth, but it was a fully functioning community.  The town boasted a general store, a gas station, funeral home, hardware store, automotive shop, independent bank, beauty salon, and most importantly, a school.   The old brick buildings on Main Street and  the lone flashing yellow light above the main intersection gave the town at least a hint of legitimacy, but only if you failed to notice the sign at the city limits that advertised the population of 206.

In recent years I relished my time at home.  Two years ago I managed to spend an entire summer living in town while staying with my Mom.  It was both frustrating and idyllic.  It was blissful to spend slow-paced evenings riding my bike around the quiet streets and walking to friends’ houses to drink a beer and shoot the breeze.  It was irritating to have to drive twenty minutes each way to buy groceries and to see nothing but conservative white people day in and day out.  Irritating, but enjoyable – that is how I’ve always felt about my hometown.

Everything changed two years ago.  The Cuivre River flooded again, perhaps the worst flood in the town’s history.  The people in town were caught off-guard and a majority of houses were flooded.  This has happened before, but this time the response would be very different.

As a result of Hurricane Katrina, the federal government had made a decided turn away from relying on levees to protect populations from flooding.  Instead, they would rather pay to permanently relocate people out of flood zones.  The government was tired of paying disaster relief for people living in these flood prone areas, and Silex is undoubtedly a flood prone area.  There would be no more disaster relief and no levees would be built.  Instead, they would just move the town.

Yes, a town can be moved.  The process in Silex is being completed as I write.  The government buys everyone’s home, provides them with a small lot on a nearby hill, and helps them with relocation expenses.  There are too many complications and exceptions to discuss here, but that is the basic idea.  All of the existing homes in the previous town would be owned by the city and then demolished.  The town that has been home to my family for several generations would be leveled, and the people relocated to a subdivision build over an old pig lot perched on a nearby hill.

If I hadn’t been there for the process, I wouldn’t have believed it possible.  I was present for the “lot lottery” during which the entire town gathered in a tent on the proposed new city and chose numbers out of a hat.  These numbers gave them the order that they could go to a huge printed map and choose their new lot.  It was like a surreal gameshow that I can imagine occurring in a strange dream, but not in reality.  People’s location in the old town was based on decades of individual decisions about who they would like to have for neighbors and what part of town was the best fit for their family, but in this lot lottery, it came down to sheer luck.

The new town is completed – a cheap subdivision a half a mile down the road.  I don’t want to be too negative because for many people the town relocation has been extremely helpful.  Giving people the opportunity to own a new home that is not in danger of flooding is certainly an improvement.  My resentment of the process is purely selfish - I want to be able to go home again.  The character of a 150 year old town was not taken into consideration when the relocation was planned.  If I had the opportunity to get a new home out of the floodplain, then I would likely feel differently about the process, but I want my son to be able to bike down the same streets that his great-great-great grandfather planned out.  I can get over not being able to go home again, but it is hard to accept that my son will never know my home.  I have memories, but I can’t give those to the next generation.

It is as if some cosmic power did everything imaginable to get me to understand the cliché to which I thought I was immune.  Ok, I get it, you really can never go home again.