The Pilgrim Sole

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

thanks, obama

In 2004, I was sick for a long time. I was sick, and my country was sick.  Soldiers, civilians were dying in Iraq, and Americans seemed to have lost sight of why we were there—if we even knew to begin with.  Repulsive photographs of American soldiers torturing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib were released.  Genocide raged in Darfur.
I was feeling hopeless. 

On July 27, 2004, I watched the Democratic National Convention.  Political conventions are a parade of somebodies and nobodies, and this next guy up was a nobody.  Some no-name, weird-name guy from Chicago, an Illinois state senator who was running for the U.S. Senate was introducing John Kerry, though, so I listened.

I sat by myself in the living room, occupying my mother’s chair while the night was cooling from the hot day.  With clarity, I remember sitting there in the dark because it was a striking moment in my life.  At the end of that no name man's speech about unity and civic responsibility and the American dream, after this soaring treatise on hope—I said these words aloud to myself:  “I want him as my president.”

Barack Obama told me to believe in America.  And when he spoke, it gave me hope, not only because he shared my principles of fairness and equality, but because at a time when the country and I were sick , I remember thinking that I believed what he was saying.  And even more noteworthy, I believed that he believed in his own rhetoric.  

Listen to his words:
I'm not talking about blind optimism here, the almost willful ignorance that thinks unemployment will go away if we just don't talk about it, or the health care crisis will solve itself if we just ignore it. No, I'm talking about something more substantial. It's the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs; the hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores; the hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta; the hope of a millworker's son who dares to defy the odds; the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too. The audacity of hope!

In the end, that is God's greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation; the belief in things not seen; the belief that there are better days ahead. I believe we can give our middle class relief and provide working families with a road to opportunity. I believe we can provide jobs to the jobless, homes to the homeless, and reclaim young people in cities across America from violence and despair. I believe that as we stand on the crossroads of history, we can make the right choices, and meet the challenges that face us. America!

Barack Obama believed that the American dream was possible.  And it gave me hope.  It’s a corny story, but it’s a true story.

Four years later, I skated around some icy streets in Iowa to beg people to caucus for Obama.  I took a bus and knocked doors in Ohio.  I organized in Virginia.  I called all over the nation to persuade voters.  I learned more about the United States working for Obama than I ever have before.  I learned to be hopeful. 

And my hopes were realized; he was elected.  And he led us.  His hope, my hope, our hope that the vision of shared responsibility and respect for one another triumphed.   And I am so proud to have worked on his behalf so that he could work on my behalf.  I don’t agree with all of his decisions, but I didn’t expect to.  I expected him to try to give everyone a fair shot at the American dream.  I expected him to roll up his sleeves and do his best to advance the project of America. I expected him to bring optimism and dignity and leadership and respect to the highest office in the land.  And he did.  And I am grateful.

I just listened again to that 2004 speech.  I encourage you to do the same.  It still gives me hope, even in the time when we’re anticipating a very different president, especially now it gives me hope.  Listen to his words.  We might need them now even more than we did then:

Yet even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes. Well, I say to them tonight, there's not a liberal America and a conservative America there's the United States of America. There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America. The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and have gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and patriots who supported it. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.

Thanks, Obama.  In honor of your service to the country, my wish is that this country will carry your hope forward beyond your term.

As for you, gentle reader, it’s easy to feel hope when things are going well.  But we don’t need it then, do we?  So, I appeal to you, especially to those people I was so honored to meet as a part of my participation in the Obama campaigns---Are you fired up and ready to go?  Because we need that enthusiasm now, my friends.  And plenty of hope.

Here's the speech:

Friday, August 27, 2010

ice cream manners

Having admired another sparkly wat, I walked out into the courtyard, still marveling at the mystery of the shiny Buddhas and colorful murals. I still don't really know what it all means. Buddhism seems so odd to me, and a part of me feels like I visited a big theme park. I'm not sure I understand much more about this way of life, but I've watched and learned enough to understand some basics--take off my shoes, cover my knees and shoulders, never touch a monk, kneel and bow before Buddha images. It's tough to get answers when you don't know how to ask questions, but it's amazing what one can learn just by observing.

When I stepped out into the sunlight, I saw a bunch of baby monks eating ice cream. A fuzzy-headed orange cloud of little boys gathered around a man with a little cart, and he handed them little cups of ice cream, one at a time and collected a coin from them. This particular town, Luang Prabang, Laos is known for its elaborate alms ceremony in the morning. Each morning, just before dawn, all of the local monks parade in a line to receive offerings of pinches of rice from the townspeople, and that serves as their meal for the day.

It was surprising that the kids were eating ice cream as there are such strict dietary guidelines, but it seemed celebratory and special. After all, who wants to associate with a religion that denies kids ice cream?

I was getting a little envious, considering whether to walk over and get some ice cream myself, though it seemed as though it would have been awkward, like maybe I was interrupting a private moment between the baby monks and the vendor. Suddenly a woman, the only other foreigner around, strode confidently over to the monks and asked the vendor for an ice cream. She paid, walked a few steps over to a stray dog lying nearby, and placed the cup in front of him, cooing at him, and left it there for the dog to eat. Her boyfriend took pictures.

Everyone else around gaped.

"How was your trip?"

People ask me, "How was your trip?" and I think about the many adventures. I'm bursting with things to tell them, but I need a shortcut, something brief to let them know how meaningful it was to me without droning on. How could I possibly sum up one month in a few minutes?

"I learned that there are real live Buddhists; they aren't just on tv!"

That'll have to do.

any morning. this morning.

I awoke early, not on purpose, and now I am thinking of this poem:

Any Morning
William Stafford

Just lying on the couch and being happy.
Only humming a little, the quiet sound in the head.
Trouble is busy elsewhere at the moment, it has
so much to do in the world.

People who might judge are mostly asleep; they can’t
monitor you all the time, and sometimes they forget.
When dawn flows over the hedge you can
get up and act busy.

Little corners like this, pieces of Heaven
left lying around, can be picked up and saved.
People won’t even see that you have them,
they are so light and easy to hide.

Later in the day you can act like the others.
You can shake your head. You can frown.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


Thailand has many cultural norms that are unusual to Westerners. Don't pat the top of anyone's head. Don't point the bottoms of your feet at anyone. Take off your shoes before entering a home or a wat. Bow regularly. They're really not all that challenging to learn, but it's good to be aware of them.

Many of the rules relate to Buddhism. Buddha is everywhere here. I'm currently on a boat and the cabinet of lifeboat vests is stored next to a framed portrait of Buddha. Many people stop walking down the street and bow when they pass an image of Buddha. Monks abound. It is, as you might imagine, important to respect Buddha.

On a train ride back from a day trip spent marveling at monkeys climbing on a temple, Avni, one of my travelmates, asked to have a look at my postcards. The train was packed with Thais, mostly schoolchildren and people on their way home from work. They filled the seats and the aisles, and we were trying to pass the time. I retreated to my book, but Melinda and Avni were chatting. It was only a matter of time before they started playing a game. They're good at making up games, but I was too tired to take part.

A few minutes later, I heard slapping, followed by gleeful laughter, I looked up to find Melinda and Avni were playing a new game they made up using postcards: They placed the postcards face up one at a time, until . . . SLAP!

They were playing Slap Buddha. The rules were like Slap Jack, but a bit problematic. Think Slap Jesus. On a train in the Bible Belt.

I exclaimed, “Are you slapping Buddha?” I was a bit too loud. Melinda and Avni grew quiet, realizing what they had done. We all looked around the train to see who had been offended.


What it's like in Thailand

Thailand is like a Thai restaurant. No kidding. There are twinkly lights and sparkly things and shrines and Buddhas and nice people and good smells all around. Even though it seems like it could be overwhelming and tacking, somehow it remains tasteful, dreamy.

Sunday, July 18, 2010


I think Thailand has more 7-11s than Northern Virginia, and that is saying something.

Monk Watering

After a long day of wandering from wat to wat, I was hot, hot. I was trying to focus on the beauty and majesty of the temples, but all I could think about was the dripping sweat and the pesky flies. I looked over and saw a monk watering the grass, pulling the hose behind him. I walked over, motioned for him to shower me and watched him grin as he directed the spray at me. I bowed, thanked him, and went back to touring wats, much refreshed.

Riding to Chiang Khang

We've hired a car and driver to go from Chiang Mai to Chiang Khang today, about a 6 hour journey. I'm sitting in the passenger side, the left side. I tried to climb in the driver's side by accident. As I type, I'm looking at Thailand go by.

Two observations:

1.According to his identity card, our driver's name is Mr. Deth.
2.The car is actually chilly from all the a/c. I looked down to see if I could turn it down and noticed that there is no heat in this car. Just a big circle of blue with no red option. Apparently, it is never cold enough in Thailand to merit having heat in a car. In the event of such low temperatures, one might have to resort to opening the windows.

Tomorrow, we cross the Mekong into Laos!

Friday, July 16, 2010


Before I left, many people were concerned about my safety. Rightfully so. There was an encampment of red shirt rebels camped out in the middle of a busy part of Bangkok. There was violence. Some people died. A colleague who frequents Thailand exhorted me not to come.

A month or so after the uprising, things had quieted down. Melinda, Avni, and I arrived.

The funny thing is that I feel safer in Thailand than I have in many other countries. I walk down the streets and through the markets unmolested. I take care with my possessions, but I don't feel threatened. I have seen absolutely no evidence of political activity. Funny that before I came, all I thought about was the possibility of violence, and now that I'm here, I spend my time visiting Buddhist temples and hanging out with monks.