Saturday, June 24, 2006

Gardens of Delight

West Michiganians take summer pretty seriously. We noticed this when we moved here in June 2002 and found that church life retreats to a kind of summer hibernation. I think I now understand why: After long, cold winters, West Michiganians have only a small window to enjoy their gorgeous beaches, and so pursue summer with reckless abandon.

At the Smith house, what we relish most about summer are the gardens my wife faithfully and lovingly tends. Indeed, her planting of seeds in the basement in snowy darkness of February and March is a harbinger of a spring that is coming. She (literally) sows in hope, looking forward to the frost giving way so that she can transplant the seedlings into new soil, giving them new space and opportunities--and then patiently, with unparalleled attention, working to coax them into bloom.

Perennials have their own kind of "hope quotient": after watching fall and winter diminish their life, spring becomes a time of waiting for resurrection. Which will return? Sometimes spring brings its own kind of heartbreak, as a plant hasn't weathered the winter. But most of the time, faith gives way to sight, hope deferred is realized, and a garden teaming with color and surprises bursts forth. It's the little surprises that are most treasured: like when a clump of stubborn lupines which has never yielded a bloom finally blesses us with a gift of color (though even those green stubborn lupines were a source of delight as we enjoyed the way that the dew and water rolled into a ball in the heart of its leaves). Or when the white and pink mix of some lilies surprises the one who planted them.

Deanna's gardens are, without a doubt, a labor of love: love for beauty, soil, and creation, but also love for us--me and the kids. Deanna blesses us with a sanctuary of floral beauty right here in the neighborhood. And I have a sense that Dee also sees the gardens as a sacramental space--as a conduit for God's love for us, as each leaf and bloom is received as a gift from a God who loves to play and delight and bless. Who could look at the teeming, lush beauty of our gardens and not think about the One who loves enough to "give the increase?" We awake each morning to a kind of horticultural morning office of prayer that channels unspeakable grace into our home.

Perhaps most importantly, Deanna's love and attention to her gardens has taught me something that Norman Wirzba's wonderful forthcoming book, Living the Sabbath, finally named for me: that at the heart of Sabbath is not so much "rest" as delight. Granted, it takes time to enjoy, and so one needs to make time for delight, and so there is an intimate connection between Sabbath rest and the delight it's meant to engender. But the end of Sabbath, the telos of such rest, is delight in God's many gifts--which is why Sabbath is not (just) about a day of the week, but rather a habit of being-in-the-world, a Monday-Friday way of life that knows how to, well, stop and smell the roses. Deanna's day begins with a sort of dutiful prayer walk, beginning with the back gardens--looking for new shoots and leaves and blooms, mourning losses, lamenting the effects of predators--then culminating with coffee on the front porch, taking delight in a new morning glory flower snaking its way up the front railing, or the explosion of orange lilies, or the towering growth of a hunted-for larkspur. I've learned to enjoy this "morning office" like no other, and learn with Deanna to find in our gardens a sacrament of God's love. And I love her for that.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Border Patrols and Academic Freedom

As a non-resident alien academic working in the United States, the steady trickle of stories about the State Department and/or Department of Homeland Security denying foreign scholars entrance to the US has some added interest for me. Add to the stories of Tariq Ali and others the newest case, that of Greek political theorist John Milios, who was denied entrace to the States where he was headed to participate in a conference at SUNY Stony Brook (the conference, ironically, was on "How Class Works"). According to the report in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Milios landed at JFK, was told his visa had been revoked--with no explanation of why it had been revoked, and no evidence offered--then interviewed for several hours before being put on a plane back to Greek. The report continues:
In the telephone interview on Wednesday, Mr. Milios said that after the attention given the expulsion in Greece, he was called to the U.S. Consulate for an hourlong discussion with a consular official. "It was a friendly talk," he said, "but again it was mainly about my political affiliations."
Milios has been a member of the Greek parliament, and is affiliated with the communist party in Greece (like a host of intellectuals around the world, it should be noted).

In addition to the general McCarthy-like feel of all this (if you haven't seen Good Night and Good Luck, rent it tonight), one of the conference organizers rightly notes the serious academic consequences of this kind of ideological border patrol: isolation.
Michael Zweig, director of Stony Brook's Center for Study of Working Class Life, said in a written statement that Mr. Milios's absence "was a serious loss to the intellectual life of the conference and the university."

"The action of U.S. officials on June 8," he said, "isolated American faculty and students from important research results derived overseas and made it impossible for a senior international expert to interact with his colleagues in the United States."
Interesting, in the latest issue of New Blackfriars, British Dominican theologian Fergus Kerr also laments the experience of trying to get into the United States. As he wryly notes:
"Having a visa, as it says on the document, is no guarantee that you will be allowed through passport control. That remains, as it says, entirely up to the individual US immigration man or woman at the desk whether to let you in. They seldom look you in the eye, they turn the pages of your passport suspiciously, and you need a ready answer if they snap out at you 'What's your business, sir, in the United States?'— 8 or 9 hours non stop in cattle class probably makes you look witless enough to have been on the wrong flight.

Take care, we are all paying a cost. Think twice about going at all."
American academic colleagues have the luxury of being able to wear their anti-Americanism on their sleeves. Those of us who know what it's like to deal with the INS tread more carefully.