This World Is Not My Home
In my first passport picture, I sit on my mother’s lap. Beside us stands my sister. The Vietnam War had just ended, and Dad, whose number was never called during his undergraduate years in the U.S., found himself needing to choose between obligatory military service in the Italian army or, thanks to a 1972 change in the law, some form of authorized community service. A conscientious objector, he chose the latter. We spent the better part of 1976, the year I turned two, in Nigeria. Dad, an advanced medical student dreaming of becoming a medical missionary, worked in a hospital.
I don’t know how early most people remember. My earliest memory is not my sister’s nightmare our first night in country, though they say her screams about “the elephants coming” woke me. Nor is it our disobedience, crossing the street to eat our neighbors’ food. That story, too, was told to me. It’s being put down in an open air market in Lagos, Nigeria by a tired mother, air pungent with fresh fish and foods I did not recognize. Nothing about this memory is clear or sharp—it’s colors, shapes, smells, bright tropical light, bustle, and unintelligible language. I have one other memory from Nigeria that I know is mine and not from stories told me or pictures taken. I’m standing in a thatched-roof, open-air hut, surrounded by people singing church songs in Yoruba. I suppose these were imprinted only because Lagos is nothing like Milan, Italy, the city where I was born.
We left Italy for good when I was only four. Still, I have a catalogue of memories from those years. All are rather banal: me standing naked and crying on an Italian beach, opening a Kinder egg in a Fiat in some parking lot, disobeying my grandfather by climbing a ladder into an old hayloft and crying for him to get me down. But over the course my childhood, as we moved from place to place, I’d call them up and then zoom in and out on the grain of the wood on that barn or the stitching of the car’s seat, though I can’t remember the color of the car or the material of the upholstery.
Like my father, I am an American citizen born abroad and declared at a consulate soon after my birth. By the time I left for college, I’d lived on three continents, one isthmus, and one archipelago. Another way of adding this up is six countries, four U.S. states, 10 cities, and around 18 discrete residences, not counting the bed under my aunt and uncle’s stairs in Goleta, California. I lived with them while I worked as a security guard for an RV camp and at a roadside organic food stand for eight months before heading off to college.
Maybe her name was Pat. I can’t recall. She was in her early fifties and had a son in a rock and roll band named The Grievers. She was an honest blue-collar American, drove a forklift in a warehouse for a living, made ties for the men in her life, and had paid her house off years ago. This was her first trip out of the country, and she’d decided to come on a short-term medical mission trip to the Caribbean.
My high school years were a procession of medical mission and Habitat for Humanity work groups. Two, three, even more work groups a year would come down. When I wasn’t working the makeshift pharmacy, stuffing bags with medicine, giving children swigs of mebendazole, explaining the doctor’s instructions to patients and having them recite them back to me, I was translating for doctors, dentists, nurses, or house-building crews. People came and went. A week of work, a day at the beach, and they were gone.
She’d packed little American flags in her luggage to pin to shirts. I refused to wear one. Missing home and wanting to celebrate in some way, establish some kind of solidarity with fellow Americans, she asked us what we most loved about the U.S. I answered, “Not a lot.” I don’t recall much of the conversation after that. I remember the sadness in her eyes. I remember stumbling between regret and a need to explain myself.
The tape I play in my mind has me unfolding before her the history of Anglo-American aggression in Latin America since Teddy Roosevelt’s gunboat diplomacy days. But my history back then was much more piecemeal. There were the bits garnered from second grade Sandinista history primers. In 1981 we attended The American School in Managua, Nicaragua. The revolution had already happened, and everyone was teaching from government-vetted books. There were the snippets of Castro’s epic four-hour discourses caught on the radio or talked about admiringly by my middle school teachers in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. We were having this conversation in a hotel in the D.R. that in the early 20th century had been one of the many palaces of the U.S. supported dictator, Trujillo. We were on an island that LBJ had invaded in 1965 to keep it from turning Commie. An island the U.S. Marines left only once order had been restored in the form of a man who governed for 12 years with the use of death squads. People I loved knew victims. Though born a citizen and privileged in the way citizens are, my relationship to the U.S. as a child was never that of the state as the benevolent parent. Maybe I said something about Chile; maybe I didn’t. I probably did say something about Iran-Contra. After all, the U.S.-backed Contra insurgency was why we left Nicaragua.
It was the Fourth of July.
Patriotism has always made me uncomfortable. Having grown up as a U.S. citizen in Latin America—where ancient, local oligarchies and modern U.S. corporations collude for power and wealth—I distrust the Puritan national myth. Though my family’s whitening was much too successful for us to claim Native American heritage (though this did not keep my grandfather from telling all about his one-quarter roots), I know enough to disbelieve the myth of the moral foundation of our country. I avoid church on holidays like the Fourth of July and Memorial Day. I can’t tolerate the religion of nation; it seems idolatrous to me. This discomfort comes, I suppose, with the territory of being raised a wanderer.
I don’t fault Pat her love of country. We’ve all been taught to love our homeland. And when asked, “Where are you from?” most of us answer without hesitation. Some of us, though, simply don’t know how to respond, because we are truly from nowhere.
During college and the few years after, I would reply, “I’m a citizen of the world.” I stopped when a friend told me she thought I was one of the most pretentious people she’d ever met, based solely on my answer to that question. No one likes a cosmopolitan, especially of the braggart kind. For me, though, that answer was shorthand. It got us quickly to “born in Italy, raised in Latin America” without my having to respond with questions rather than answers: “What do you mean? Do you want to know where I was born? Where I last lived? My ethnicity? Where I consider home? Whether or not I am citizen of these United States and whether I was naturalized or born one?” People want simple answers. In my case, simple is specious.
Now when someone asks where I’m from, I cut to the chase and say: “Italy. Latin America. American parents.”
Regardless what answer I give, more questions follow.
“Were you military?”
“No, medical missionaries.”
“Isn’t Italy already Christian?”
“Yes. Well, we’re Protestants. My grandfather fought in Italy in World War II. He felt he had to go back.”
Some will then inquire about denominational affiliation. Those who know something of American religious groups forged in the 19th century will further ask, “Are you instrumental or noninstrumental?” We were noninstrumental. To this some will add, “Y’all can really sing—four part harmony and all.” And it’s true. We can.
We still do, when the whole family gets together—sing and sing and sing for hours. This is the case if we’re at my parents’ with my siblings and their growing families come up from Chile or Mexico or down from Oklahoma. Or if we’re with my aunts and uncles and cousins, the lot of us gathered from Alaska, Austria, Brazil, the Caribbean, and the mountains north of Santa Fe. Songs—gospel songs—are how we spend our time. No session would ever be complete without the family breaking out into a down-home countrified low-church a cappella, tent-revival version of “This World Is Not My Home.”
I am the son of the son of the son of an itinerant church of Christ preacher. Yes, with a small “c.” Yes, we are the ones who do not dance, do not drink (though our family, going back at least to my grandfather, did), and do not sing with instruments. We are the group who throughout the 20th century debated Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and any other Christian denomination foolish enough to think they were going to heaven.
Being from nowhere has always been a point of pride in my family. Church, not nation, has always been our true home. Though biography certainly does a play a part (neither parents nor children were born in the continental U.S.), our cosmopolitanism is principally theological in nature. Christianity has always been cosmopolitan. “Paul did not go to hamlets and villages but to cities: Rome, Corinth, Athens,” my father would remind us. “Jesus did not kneel before Caesar or Herod, but in the garden, in prayer.” That we all are positioned at an angle to national, patriotic narratives is one of those felicitous accidents where belief truly did organize biography in such a way as to reinforce the belief that this world is not our home. We are just a passing through, and it doesn’t matter where we live. Our treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue. We simply can’t feel at home in this world anymore. In fact, we never have.
Our family collected songs about heaven like some people collect teaspoons. They marked and measured moments in our lives, like the dirge we learned around the time Mom went blind in one eye.
The world you know as a child is the one given to you. You move because your parents move. You are “from here” or “from there” because your parents tell you so. You grow up in a religious group and are told it began on Pentecost Sunday, and you believe this to the point of arguing in fifth grade with Catholics about primacy of origin, utterly ignorant that Campbell and Stone were 19th century Americans and that your particular religious group was born in the hills of Kentucky. Children live and move about in a world presided over by adults. The lucky ones never have to call that into question, get to bounce about enveloped in love, oblivious of almost anything but their wants. We were lucky, and parental love covered over many sins.
I remember aspects about Mom’s blindness. How the morning she woke up and couldn’t see we were in a mountain village, several hours north of Managua. Dad had been holding a health clinic. We’d been sleeping in our Volkswagen camper. I remember our leaving Nicaragua, the time spent in Houston, the parents going to see specialists, the miracle of Mom’s sight regained. I think I remember my parents having talked about mom’s blindness that morning. I’m rather sure we headed back to the capital early. They probably talked about it all the way home and then long into the night and for many nights. But I don’t remember. Maybe they kept this from us. Maybe a mother touched by blindness was, for us children, inconceivable.
Who can remember what street we were on? Dad was driving the Volkswagen they bought anticipating van-fulls of Nicaraguan brethren and sistren—which they always had. We often fulfilled Christ’s injunction to let the soldier ride along. But on this morning or afternoon, it was only us. Dad was recounting a nurse flirting with him. Even at seven I knew that overt and blatant propositions were improper, but I wasn’t worried. Mom and Dad were in their golden years and talk flowed between them like light. They trusted each other, were faithful to each other, and could talk about anything. This I do remember; but I don’t the worry about Mom’s blindness.
And yet that song: “One more step, one more step in faith. Forward brother, forward. Our prize waits for us in heaven.” A funeral march, each measure dragging like a tired foot up a hill. And Mother, eyes closed, singing, “One more step. Forward brother. There’s a prize.”
Many missionaries deal with culture shock by pining for the golden land of the mother country, dreaming of a place that no longer exists. It’s a potent mix of nostalgia and present discontent. Back home everyone’s always on time. The lights never go out. The water’s always potable and cold, straight from the faucet. The roads. The police. The cellophaned meats. Back home it’s not rice and beans every meal. Everything’s better, and all the food you ever loved as a child is there. True and real civilization.
When we lived in Nicaragua, one of Dad’s best friends was a salesman. I don’t remember if he sold meat before the ’79 Revolution or if “the government” decided that his product would be meat. Because he refused to pledge allegiance to anything but Christ, he got poorer and poorer product. We hated his hot dogs. They tasted of rancid fat and sand. Dad, though, would buy them. We would spit them out.
Once he took us for supper to The Purple Cow, a diner with coke floats and hot dogs. We were certain it wouldn’t have those nasty red sticks Omar peddled. This was a fancy place. We drank our floats and fidgeted about the booth, talking of nothing but hot dogs. They came. We sniffed. We whined, “Omar.” Eventually, Omar was given only bones to sell. Soon after we left Nicaragua, he found his way to Mexico, crossed the border into the U.S., and worked to bring his family north. Sometime in the mid ’80s he and several million others were granted amnesty and residency.
Parental memories form so much of a missionary child’s sense of home. This inheritance of myth and nostalgia mixed with growing up in another country explains the dislocation of so many missionary children.
If Dad longed for anything, it was Italy. He didn’t share much with us, however. His childhood memories were hard. His mother died of cancer while he was in college. And though his dad remarried, his mother wasn’t there to pass on family history, to tell us stories of his childhood. When the family gathered, siblings would reminisce. Most had to do with “the family mission,” like how Dad, his siblings, and his cousins torched a roadside shrine in some northern Italian village, thinking they were advancing the cause of Christ.
Mom hardly ever spoke of her childhood. In part, I suspect this is because she too grew up out of place. Her mother, a Puerto Rican war bride, desperately tried and quite succeeded in raising her two children as anything but Puerto Rican. Dark-eyed, olive-skinned, and black-haired in Texas, she was terrified they might be taken as Mexican. Her father had her trained to come on a whistle. And once my wife and I had kids, she told me she was quite headstrong until the age of three, when her father finally “beat it out of her.” At times I’ve wondered if this is why she doesn’t speak of her childhood. Then again, I’ve never asked.
As children we were not fed a diet of halcyon days in the U.S.A. Our parents spoke of college in Texas and California and those first years of marriage in Italy. We, too, worked hard to keep our scraps of memory: prancing about a Milan apartment with underwear in our butt-cracks pretending we were sumo wrestlers while Dad studied; the time it snowed and he made a sled out of cardboard and plastic trash bags and pulled us all the way home from preschool; walking down a street in Milan with Mom on a winter day looking for a lost matchbox car that had fallen through a hole in the pocket of her woolen rust and brown and beige plaid coat.
Mom had learned to cook in Italy. Home food was always Italian. As we moved she dutifully learned a repertoire of national dishes from wherever we landed in. Thus, in Nicaragua our fare was Italian and Nicaraguan; in Costa Rica, Italian, Nicaraguan, and Costa Rican; in the Dominican Republic…. Neither our food memories nor our deep family memories ever linked back to the U.S., unless it was a family reunion. In which case, we were singing about heaven.
Home, if I had to choose one place, would be a tract of land just north of Santa Fe on Highway 84/285. A few miles beyond Camel Rock runs the Pojoaque arroyo. Soon after crossing the bridge, there on the left, on a hill, is the adobe house. A long eastern wall of windows faces the Sangre de Cristo Mountains; the western wall, the front porch, look toward sandy barrancas that rise up five hundred feet above the spruce and sage brush. My paternal grandparents lived in that house from the early ’80s until my grandfather’s death in 2000. We went there as often as we could. Maybe the landscape, so beautiful, so hard to live in, sank deep into us because its beauty, its harshness, are at once of this world and a reminder that our time on earth is not for long.
The summer between my junior and senior years of college, I lived there. Having changed my major three or four times, I had, just that spring, finally declared English. I was lost. I went there to help my grandparents, to be their handyman and gardener. I went there because I had nowhere else to go and needed family.
I didn’t go to high school, nor did I homeschool in the traditional sense. Instead, halfway through the 10th grade, I began to work as my Dad’s personal assistant — patient triage, pharmacy, running national and international errands for him. When I wasn’t working for Dad, I translated for work groups. I was supposed to have kept up with my studies on the side: reading an old college history textbook; working through geometry on my own. Instead, I spent that time reading Candide, Moby Dick, Catcher in the Rye, and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and studying German. After two and half years of this, any inkling of self-discipline was gone. Any facility with math had been sloughed off. Though we should’ve known my dream of becoming a doctor, like my father, was but a dream, I marched confidently into chemistry and calculus and embryology. Further complicating things, the summer after my sophomore year I’d decided that I couldn’t be a missionary for the church of Christ in Latin America. I didn’t see the point of trying to get people to switch to my brand of toothpaste in the hopes that with it their pearlies would be pearlier.
That summer I read Whitman, played bocce and drank beer with my grandfather, sat on the front porch and had conversations with my grandmother, dug fence posts, watered pear trees, built a retaining wall, linseed-oiled the wood on the adobe house, drove up to Chaco Canyon to tour the ruins. I worked the land every day: hoeing, weeding, and watering the trees. Both my grandfather and I ignored the hard fact that his pear orchard was a chimera. Those trees never produced fruit. And the new owner took them out soon after moving in. But it was a lesson in tending a plot of land, in living in a place with a contentious history, in learning how to be both of these United States and something other. After all, the First Peoples and the Hispanic of the southwest have been working out their relationship to the larger nation for centuries.
My apprenticeship in learning to love this world has been long and slow. As animals, we all love the physical world, some with more suspicion than others. When this love becomes inordinate, excessive, the church calls it sin — avarice, lust, gluttony. Animal appetites that must be kept in check. Talk of heaven also has a way of doing this. Still, our bodies pull us.
I would love to be a gardener, to learn how to love and care for the land that feeds me. Moving as my family did left no time for gardening. A year and half in Nicaragua, before my mother’s blindness, before the Contra began to kill foreign medical personnel. A year and half in Costa Rica, before my parents were caught in the middle of the U.N. and the Costa Rican government. A year and half of living in north Louisiana as my parents tried to get visas for Colombia, before deciding on the Dominican Republic instead. A year and a half leaves little time for a garden. And when each of those year-and-a-halves are divided among three houses, there is no point in trying.
I’d seen gardens, eaten from them before. Neighbors in Rome, Georgia, gave us tomatoes, okra, and carrots grown in their backyards. The bungalow-style hotel where we stayed when we first arrived in Nicaragua had a banana tree right outside the front door. Our first house had a mango tree in the backyard behind the patio. In Santo Domingo, an avocado tree grew beside the house. But these were not gardens to be tended, cared for. The trees were simply there and their fruit was for the taking without the work of tending the plant.
My father standing, machete raised, amid the acrid smoke of plastic, dead rodents, human feces, and weeds is my first memory of a garden. An alley, that had once been a park with trees and benches, ran the length of our first house in Santo Domingo. Out of desperation to control the rats, to keep the path clean, and to shame the drunks who used the alley as their voiding ground and the neighbors who dumped their trash in the weeds, Dad decided that part of his mission was to bring civility and order to the alleyway. As I remember it, the work of civilization, of slashing and burning, of debris removal, of purifying by fire took the full year we lived in that house. But it wasn’t all fire and sweat. At some point plants were introduced: Spanish Sword and Purple Heart. We children were enlisted to tend the fire, to move the broken discarded cinder blocks, to water the plants. How we hated that work. After all, we’d be moving soon.
Though this was an introduction to something like a garden, it did little to teach love of land and place. It taught duty. It taught toil. It taught vigilance against weeds. I’m sure that had we stayed in Costa Rica, things would be different. I remember the drive down from the mountains of San José to the eastern coastal jungle. We went to visit a Carlos, a young Honduran agronomist, also a missionary. It seemed that he knew every plant, that he could walk out into the growth and chop down a young palm to harvest its heart, barely checking to see if it was the right kind of tree. Had we stayed in Costa Rica, we might’ve gotten to know Carlos and his wife, Roxana, better, might’ve learned to care for the land in a different way, and might’ve lived in a country with no historic connections to the U.S. No William Walkers. No multiple Marine invasions. No puppet dictators.
If there was something in our family that always called us back to this present, physical world— if there was something we celebrated—it was food. Sensual, fragrant food. Father loved the food of his childhood and Mother didn’t simply oblige him, she lavished him with Bolognese made with carrots, celery, garlic, and onions chopped and sautéed with ground beef and then stewed for hours with tomatoes, wine, and herbs. But it wasn’t all Italian all the time. Mother found a way into the cultures of those countries we moved through by learning to cook their food. She knows how to prepare green and ripe papaya, knows how four different countries turn avocado into dip, knows what to do with plantains depending on their ripeness.
The foods served at the family table are home, are comfort, are love and care. As a child, food is not something you think about. You instinctively accept it or reject it. I’m sure there were many meals beyond Omar’s hot dogs that we kids rejected. After all, Mother worked hard to broaden our palates. What I remember, though, are not the struggles to get us to eat new foods but the hours she spent learning how to make Nicaraguan tamales, the way she would ask questions of cooks, watch them to learn how they prepared foods like gallo pinto or picadillo. In our home, it was routine for lunch to include three, four, even five extra guests — people who would appear at the door for a visit or consulta con el médico right as lunch was being served. If the fare were local, they would praise Mom for her prowess. Otherwise, they would receive a culinary introduction to another country’s food. At the end of the meal, even the most tentative and shy of eaters would be won over.
Mom taught me to love saffron, cilantro, breadfruit. She taught me to cook, taught me only to barely ever follow a recipe, should instinct or lack of ingredients dictate otherwise.
I cannot escape my Americanism. I’ve got that flat American accent. American pragmatism and optimism inform how I approach the world. Since I neither was born nor raised in the States, despite being an American, regardless of where I live within these borders I am always the stranger. Likewise, though born abroad and raised abroad, regardless of where we went I was always a gringo. Any disavowal of the nation that took in my immigrant ancestors from Scotland centuries ago— even though it then forced the children of those ancestors, who had wed with southeastern tribes, to uproot to Oklahoma—would be disingenuous. And even though, my father’s great-grandfather walked off the reservation as a teenager to become a west Texas cotton farmer, this was not a story we were told. Not, at least, until I was 15. Where you are from—west Texas, the Nation West, Puerto Rico, Scotland, southwestern Virginia—these places never really mattered. What mattered was that we were on, that I was on that train, heaven bound.
Despite my discomfort with the U.S., like a good American, something at the core of our national experiment attracts me. At the end of the 18th century, Francisco de Miranda, a Venezuelan landowner and intellectual, traveled the original 13 states. How courts followed the rule of law, how the nation was structured around the small family farm rather than the large plantation, amazed him. Neither rule of law nor small family farms existed in Spanish Colonial America, where large plantations were the norm and money and power bought you rights and privileges and placed you beyond the law. I think of de Miranda’s travels and think if only the cultivation of one’s garden were the national virtue, if rule of law was not a privilege principally afforded to the powerful, if all races, all creeds, all nations were always welcomed and given home.
After a childhood spent wandering from place to place in service of the church, my wife, our kids, and I now live an hour from Cane Ridge, the very spot where our movement began. For four years we’ve called Kentucky home. I’ll always long for the Caribbean, always feel like moving after a year or two, always think the only real mountains in this world are the Sangre de Cristos. But I’m happy to be here and know people who still cultivate the land for sustenance rather than profit. I’m happy to eat vegetables grown here in this soil, on these rolling hills. I pledge allegiance to the small country, to this earth that feeds me and to which I will return as dust.
Two years ago we planted asparagus in our backyard. For two years we’ve weeded and watered the plot, waiting for the rootstock to establish itself, anticipating that spring when we can harvest them. Next year, when those first shoots appear and grow tall, we’ll have a feast.