Epilogue, afterword, and sandbox
I don’t see my story as being unusual. At least not for me. It all began in Greensboro, NC in the 50’s. I grew up in the 60’s like a lot of people did, watching Walter Cronkite on the news and witnessing things that happened, JFK, MLK, RFK, Vietnam. I went away to boarding school in the early 70’s but by the late 70’s I was enlisting in the military, not necessarily a common combination. But it is what I did. The decade of the 80’s was the height of the Cold War and I really felt I was serving God and Country and helping subdue the Communist scourge through my Naval service. The 90’s found me joining State and going overseas, my “return” to Africa. That lasted 20 years.
There are no traces or evidence of critical race theory in these pages, implied or suggested. No guilt here, and no victim-hood. At least none I am conscious of. If you want or need those feelings, there are other books for you to read, other stories to be told, other lives to be examined.
I’ve been lucky more often than I’ve experienced ill-luck in this life. Fate has been kind to me overall, notwithstanding the circumstances surrounding my departure from the foreign service after 21 years of faithful service. My druthers would have included a nicer sendoff at retirement, a suitable farewell to friends and colleagues at the end of a total of 34 years of federal service including my time in the Navy. But that was not to be.
Institutionally there was never closure. At least not the kind of closure I was looking for. Sure, they brought us back after nine months of paid administrative leave. They even offered me assignments, domestic and overseas. I told them firmly but politely that they caused my life to be reconfigured, now it was reconfigured and there would be no place for this past in my future.
I was already scheduled for retirement and already enrolled in a graduate program and looking for the next big thing in my life when Benghazi happened. I expected some type of apology from the State Department when the whole thing blew over. It never came. In life one must learn to recognize and accept the apologies that are never spoken.
What goes around comes around, so they say. The Hillary/Kerry group left government when the Trump folks came in. Now they are back in again, and quite making a mess of things. The pendulum swings. There is crisis at the southern border, and prices of gas and food have been going steadily up since January of 2021. Nobody saw Rona coming, nobody saw such dramatic inflation coming, nobody saw the immigration crisis coming, at least no one admits to it.
Cover-ups continue at State. Problems don’t get fixed or resolved. There are band-aids on top of band-aids and bodies buried in shallow graves.
Whatever became of the three DS folks in the same category? They had high class attorneys so I guess it all worked out for them one way or the other. Maybe I should have just kept my mouth shut and hired a high priced attorney. Not. I’d be surprised if they ever got an apology. Mother State never comes clean.
And Benghazi? Libya? Descent into total chaos. The folks we supported as successors to Qaddafi in the administration’s regime change plans are all dead or out of government. The pendulum swings. If it hits you it will knock you out. Best to stay out of the way.
Many of the Hillary henchmen did not return with the Biden group. A few did. I don’t know about the Obama strap hangers. A few career-types returned from retirement.
All wounds heal over time, even emotional ones. Maybe especially the emotional ones. But the place where the healing scab formed may itch on occasion as a gentle reminder. Friendships dissipate over time, disintegrate, and new relationships emerge, better, stronger.
Some young/new foreign service officers have read the chapters I’ve posted on LinkedIn. I hope they can benefit from my experiences. In fact, down the line I’d like to put together a navigational guide for young officers, how to steer through the unseen hazards, clear the shallow shoals, and metaphorically avoid the unmarked wrecks resting on the bottom of rivers and seas.
Life goes on. Life gets better. We age gracefully. Ultimately, all that remains is the stuff that gets written. And all that remains of the written stuff is the stuff that gets repeated, talked about, whether in criticism or in praise. Something to keep in mind.
In a metaphorical sense, for every external bridge I destroyed, I built an internal one. Internal bridges are useful to have. Many of my “bridges” overall have managed to survive, childhood friendships, classmates from schools, shipmates, colleagues. And I have every poem I composed during every period in hard copy and on an external hard drive. I am an archivist, after all.
I can count on one hand the times I have been back to the Department. I went back for a couple of ambassadorial swearing-ins of A-100 classmates and friends, and I made a trip or two to the Ralph Bunche library for research and the used bookstore in the basement for pleasure. I really miss both places, but now my retirement id card has expired and I’m not even sure where to go to get it renewed.
On the other hand, I have been back to Woodberry. More buildings crowd the well-kept space but it still has remnants of its antebellum, plantation charm. It may sound odd, but I so love the American South. I love the architecture of southern cities and college campuses, I love Southern literature, I love its cuisine, and I love its music, whether in church, in juke joints, or in concert halls. The old ways, the darkness of the past is harder and harder to actually find. Increasingly, people are just people, regardless of race or ethnicity and despite what Biden and company claim about race extremism. All the talk about critical race theory seeks to re-ignite ancient hatreds on all sides of racial, ethnic and religious divides. We should all love one another. God is love.
I don’t make it back to Greensboro as often as I’d like. The drive that I used to do in 4.5 hours as a young man now takes the better part of two days after stopping in Charlottesville for a meal and shopping. And the final stretch back on I-66, always bumper to bumper especially on Sundays, drains me for days at a time. The thought of a road trip that once excited me is now a bit of a burden.
Only in repetitive dreams and sometimes nightmares have I made it back to a submarine, or any Navy ship for that matter. From Cairo we boarded a Navy gator freighter, the USS Saipan, transiting the Suez Canal but that was years ago. My hip and these knees will never let me climb down a submarine hatch or a ship ladder in real life. Well, maybe, but not for long!
I was reminded this past weekend on a walking tour of war memorials (of all times and places for such a reminder!) that politics is very personal here in the nation’s capital, Washington, DC. Lifelong friendships get sacrificed on the altar of temporary political compliance, political correctness, and convenient narratives that may not outlast a given administration. Strong social and professional networks get shredded over issues that are just not that consequential. Trust evaporates into thin air. Without the trust and confidence that friends and colleagues who become decision-makers will do the right thing under duress, the fabric of society is irreparably torn.
postscript. 09102021. A note to a DACOR-Bacon friend
Thank you for your thoughtful note. It means a lot to me, as does the whole prospect of "returning to the fold" of foreign service activity, even (and perhaps, especially) among retirees.
During the first COVID lockdown (because there will likely be another in time for the next election), I set upon writing my memoir of 21 years (six overseas assignments and one lengthy overseas TDY) of service plus the rest of my life leading up to it. The activity of writing and reflecting gave me some pause and some inspiration. At the end of my career and even until now I felt (and continue to feel) abandoned by the organization, State, by the culture, and I feel dispossessed, in a way, though not of my memories, nor of my recording of them. The pen, they say, is mightier than the sword.
Nothing is going to change. I go back and forth on the whole idea of writing it all off (no pun intended) and continuing to move on. After all, others have lost more throughout the history of American diplomacy. I think about poor Mary Ryan, who literally grieved herself to death over the manner of her departure. One day one of my colleagues will write a book about that.
That is pretty much where I stand. There are plenty of retired foreign service librarians who can offer advice and lend their expertise to these efforts, so DACOR needn't do without. Right this minute, I am inclined to offer my contributions elsewhere, and to bury the "return to the fold" idea in the dustbin of history, as it were. But I do go back and forth. I am going back and forth as we speak.
We (my wife and I) are reconfiguring our lives in light of the new Biden vaccine mandate, seeking a parallel existence that many like us are embracing. It's funny, even ironic, in a way. My father once told me there was a time when black people never thought segregation would end. I imagine there was a time when people even believed slavery would never end. We are approaching a new societal separation. I am in an online group reading Dante's Divine Comedy, three cantos per week. It is interesting to note that Dante Alighieri, already an accomplished poet, was banished from Florentine society, a side effect of local and Papal politics. It was during that banishment that he penned Divine Comedy. And we are still reading it, 700 years after his death.
This is starting to sound like an appendix to my memoir epilogue! I will stop here. Thanks again for your note.
Sandbox: Field Notes
field notes on the field notes from my American Sojourn
I am going to make this page a bit of a sandbox as I do rewrites and edits.
May 18, 2021. Looking over it all, the chapter titles are a bit unimaginative, don’t you think? Not really going for too much flair, though, and the existing titles are functional. I guess. Working on that thought. Posting a short note to Facebook gave me a big push on subscribers. You have to go where the people are.
May 18, 2021. I never made it to Benghazi. But my name became associated with it due to my position as deputy assistant secretary of state for North Africa. More in chapters 23-25.
May 18, 2021. Let’s face it. A memoir is a lot more self serving than even an autobiography. There is a search on the part of the memoirist, consciously or unconsciously, for universal themes and unity of events in support of those themes. It is a subject worthy of further study.
May 19, 2021. Still wrestling with the inclusion of poems written during each period at the end of the chapter. The poems fill in thoughts, emotions that the prose leaves out. Think I’ll let it stay. But I do wonder.
May 19, 2021. What about the order of the chapters? Is chronological order boring? Too predictable? Might a non-consecutive order be a bit confusing? Life does happen in a certain order, but storytelling need not be so orderly. In my original plan for an autobiographic novel, I changed the order to something more rhizomatic, jumpting from node to node without regard to the passage of time. Perhaps that experiment only works with fiction.
May 20, 2021. Heard from a high school classmate this morning who lives in Belize. Our exchange reminded me I didn’t go into a ton of detail about my “coverage” of UK interests in Latin America during my stint at Embassy London. May need to revise that chapter to include work with Cuba, Belize, Guatemala, Ecuador (especially Ecuador!). So much still to process.
May 20, 2021. My favorite handmade-in-Poland coffee cup developed a hairline crack. So I used the occasion to order a replacement. Then I thought, why not fix the old one, then I’ll have two favorite cups! So I googled “repairing pottery cracks” which lead me to Kintsugi, the idea that repairing broken items can result in an object more beautiful that the original item before it was broken. Isn’t that what we do with out lives? Things, relationships, occupations get broken, sometimes just from normal wear and tear. But we don’t abandon the broken pieces, we insert a filling and cover that with glue, then sand it down to something more beautiful that the original, unbroken thing. I wrote in one of my 1975 poems, “Tomorrow is retrieved from the rubbish/And polished to a more brilliant luster.” Now I must look up Wabi Sabi.
May 20, 2021. Going back and reviewing the original documents, letters, testimony transcripts, etc., a case can still be made for conflicting accounts about what happened during the Benghazi ARB. Of course, it is easy to forget that people thought the future presidency of Hillary Clinton was riding on the balance of the ARB being a righteous undertaking, even though it wasn’t. Determining what is true is not a function of a democratic process, counting the number of votes for one side or another. The tyranny of the majority is highlighted as a concept when the majority is just plain wrong.
May 21, 2021. For the most part the prose was written after the fact and with some degree of retrospection. Contemporary items are included in chapters, like conversations, correspondence, etc., but most was written during moments of reflection well after the action, so to speak. The poems included, however, happened simultaneously with the action, and so lend a notion of spontaneity to the chapters.
May 29, 2021. I’m finding it useful to go back and fill in details, to add a bit of color to the black and white. I keep finding details I omitted on the initial run, perhaps things nor yet processed. maybe stuff I want to avoid, to forget. It is not all goodness and light, you know.
It is useful to go back & fill in the details,
to add a bit of color to the black & white.
I omitted some episodes in the first draft,
perhaps thoughts not yet processed, maybe stuff
I wanted to avoid, to forget. It is not
all goodness and light, you know, and
“life ain’t been no crystal stair.” I have broken hearts,
including my own, and buried broken bodies
too hastily in shallow graves out back,
including my own, or deep in the sand
of soft, wet beachfront where sunbathers dwell.
The first draft sheds light on darkened areas,
but it’s the rewrite that quickens the resolve
To clear the air and to finish the deed.
June 3, 2021. Yes, I have deleted some stuff. Like the first kiss, the loss of my virginity and other rites of passage, the deep disappointment of my first experience with college. There are things I absolutely ignored at the time, and some of them I never revisited until now. There are things I would change if I could go back in time. Or at least clean up. Relationships I completely screwed up. Even the 24, 48, and 72’ers I pulled in the Navy working miracles when it was required. Growing up being thrilled by ACC and CIAA basketball, Motown, Stax and the Sound of Philadelphia music. Good things (mostly) and a few bad.
June 6, 2021. Sat through an interesting webinar Friday featuring a presentation by Robert O. Meally on collagist Romare Bearden. Bearden’s collage work provided the inspiration for three of August Wilson’s plays, so of course I found his talk, Antagonistic Cooperation, to be thrilling. He is promoting his next book by the same title. The thought occurred to me, what if Bearden had had access to photoshop? My memoir project is a collage of sorts, which made me think about the overarching story I am trying to present here. Admittedly there may not be an overarching story, but it is worth asking the question.
June 15, 2021. I’ve decided to not trade on my Benghazi fame. Sure, it’s an eye-catcher. But who needs that traffic? It was less a defining moment in my life than other things that happened. I want to own my experiences but I don’t need to exploit them.
June 22, 2021. Filomena says I should allow this editing stage to stretch out over at least a year, to allow ideas to season and memories to return. She knows what she is talking about - she is the published author in our household. I think i will listen to her. There really is no rush.
June 28, 2021. Watching the Olympics trials this weekend sent me back down memory lane to my track running experience at Woodberry in the early 1970’s. Much later, and in fact, only recently in answering questions with my cardiologist, I’d learn that what I thought were stomach cramps during intense repetitive training workouts were actually little heart attacks where my heart wasn’t getting sufficient volumes of incoming blood, sort of like pump cavitations I studied later in submarine engineering. I survived, but the pain I endured steered me away from track in later years. The condition sometimes results in sudden death, especially among high school athletes with similar preconditions, so I was very lucky.
June 28, 2021. I think I have the data down. But how to transform a chronology into an art form? That is the question. I’m gonna need to read some books. Once I figure it all out, stand by for possible minor alterations. It is a process, after all, and it is art, not a memo.
July 4, 2021. Happy Independence Day. I woke up with the thought that the Afterword needed to be more generalized and maybe even shortened. Took the “end of career” afterward and put it in the final assignment chapter where it was more relevant. Theoretically, I decided that the memoir is about my “whole” life, not just that last year at State, and further, I decided to “defang” that whole episode, placing it in a safe box where it is not and will never be life-defining. The new generalized Afterword looks to volume two, new occupations and vocations, and a re-definition of sorts. It ends with an original sonnet that peers into the future.
July 7, 2021. My garden is booming! Sunflowers are feet tall plus, eggplant is flowering, and peppers are a big bush. Reviewing and proofreading these chapters, I am struck by several considerations. For one, this is not my parents’ story, it’s not my sister’s story, it’s not my classmates’ or my shipmates’ story. It is mine. I haven’t always been the hero or the winner or the center of whatever action was taking place. There have been times when I’ve been the anti-hero, the loser, even the bench warmer. Such is life and such is the telling of a life story. This story has been undramatic, uninspirational at times and often downright uninteresting. Take it all with a grain of salt.
July 8, 2021. We are living in a dark time, y’all. The Haiti assassination gave me flashbacks to JFK and the coffee commercial. Reading the Roethke poem might help, but it won’t be sufficient. I may need to watch the Sophie Scholl film and listen to some Schubert to get out of this funk.
July 9, 2021. Early morning chat with Filomena. Heart to heart. Always envisioned these years I’d be returning to African countries in the summer months, filling in at embassies for vacationing mgmt officers, and mentoring young officers as I was mentored by retirees Howard McGowan, Bob Kile, Al Jazyncka, and later, Nick Baskey. But I also remember the point where I had to decide whether to reaffiliate or drop off the ready reserve rolls from my prior Naval service. I decided to leave the past in the past, that if I really wanted to do something in the present from my past I should have never changed career paths, perhaps, that there were reasons why I moved on when I did. Choices I made. Always better to live in the present, facing the future.
July 23, 2021. For the last two weeks time for my memoir writing project has been drained away by a course, Digital Storytelling Bootcamp. Meets three hours by Zoom every Sunday afternoon. Learning a lot of cool tricks. Check out the progress here: https://repurposeandrepackageyourlife.wordpress.com/.
July 29, 2021. Did a Memoir for Beginners webinar yesterday and got some good ideas. Like making an ongoing list of I remembers, and tying things together into tighter scenes, themes, and structure. Right now my bits and pieces are all over the place. I learned the three main sources: experience; witness; and independent memory. I learned no memory is insignificant and everything is material to be mined for information. I have to differentiate between autobiography and memoir. I also concluded I might need some professional help in crafting the whole thing internally. I can throw together a photograph or two for the cover, or make it very plain, like bold white letters on a deep purple background (my preference) but inside the book is a different story. New memories are returning daily that need to be incorporated as I edit and tighten. !A luta continua!
August 4, 2021. News! Dinner with two writers and new friends last night. We talked mostly about August Wilson plays and history and it was non-stop chatter. And I had an interesting email exchange with an old colleague about a library/archives project with a community of retired diplomats. And my guitar arrived! A lot for one day. I have to arrange for lessons this fall to get started with this thing.
I am thinking about consolidating chapters 1-5 into “book #1,” chapters 6-10 into “book #2,” and chapters 11-24 into “book #3.” I’m aiming for better, tighter organization all around, to tell the story one time right.
September 18, 2021. I’ve taken a bit of a break from the sand box but edits to the chapters continue. Ideas, like birds with feathers, flutter in and out. I’m giving serious thought to extending the memoir project at least to the time of the COVID pandemic, a sort of reprieve from the near past and a peep into the future of my post retirement life. A great deal of it is already written and posted to various blogs. And oodles of poetry! In fact, the poetry of that period may serve as the overarching theme.
Making an outline over the next two weeks.
September 20, 2021. First day of the Emily Dickinson marathon! I am reading, not just listening this year. And yes, renumbering the closeout chapters and adding four new chapters post retirement: returning to school for the LIS masters; taking a series of jobs to build my new skill stack; the arrival of COVID and its derailing effects; and emerging from the COVID crisis.
December 28, 2021. A lot has happened. Completed another August Wilson study group, did a Bernadette Mayer marathon, been reading Dante’s Divine Comedy since September. Getting ready for a group read of some short stories. Here is where it relates to my memoir project. I’ve been thinking about converting it all to a series of short stories, sort of creative non-fiction. More flexibility, I think, than just regurgitating life events. Might require significant restructuring. Maybe not.
February 4, 2022. Consolidating into a few big blocks of text and reposting to Substack without photographs. Also separating most poetry pieces to an accompanying chapbook.
March 1, 2022. Adding paragraphs on sealed-bid disposal sales in GB, Angola and Ghana and how it relates to elections in each country.
March 20, 2022. Reduce to font size=9. Pull out and place poems in separate volume. Pull out photos and place in the middle by figure #. Working primarily on the manuscript with only occasional updates to substack.
June 21, 2022. Rethinking overarching themes. A handful of noted writers have used portions of Dante’s Divine Comedy as organizing structures for their life story narrative. I can see that. For instance, those years of trying to fit in but falling short, and/or of always feeling the need to compromise my principles in order to be accepted, to be found to be acceptable, might constitute a type of pilgrimage through Hell. That might emcompass my high school years, the time I spent at the bakery, my military years and my years as a diplomat. On retiring, my journey led me through a type of purgatory, or purging, in preparation for a later Paradiso. And so on and so forth.
There is more to this story, but it will have to be told later as I am still in the living of it. Volume Two will begin at Catholic University and cover my time as a full-time student. It will also cover my jobs as a librarian, an archivist, and a project manager, the remote work (wfh) I did during the shutdown, and whatever comes next.
I have several hundred pages of journal entries from my work with the August Wilson American Century Cycle of plays and from my observance of the 2020 elections and their aftermath. Those stories will remain to be told at a later date. After the dust has settled, perhaps, the environment will be better. There are pages of notes from my docent training at the Library of Congress and the National Museum for African American History and Culture. Both, the pandemic and subsequent shutdown notwithstanding, added and continue to add immense value to my life.
I close out this effort with a sonnet.
Some days I think my poetry making
is done. I try to turn a verse or two
and it all falls flat - no rhythm, no rhymes,
no magic, just words and punctuation.
I need some time at sea to stir things up
a bit. A trans-Atlantic crossing would
be optimum - a paddle-boat up the river
will suffice. I’ll always and forever
be a man of simple pleasure. But the air
we breathe is full of negativity.
All the canaries are dead, heaven-bound
in this brave new world where skepticism
is not allowed. A heavy fog surrounds us.
Which sentinel species is next in line?