- 16 Jun - 22 Jun, 2018
BUILDING PATIO AND AN ACT OF FAITH
- 02 Jun - 08 Jun, 2018
- A Letter From America
Four years ago, in 2014, I built a brick patio, something I had never done before. I couldn’t have done it at all without my friend Pete, who has both experience and tools that I lack. But the particular vision for this particular patio was mine, and so was most of the manual labour. Building a patio is no simple task. I had to first imagine the patio that I wanted, then haul out a lot of dirt, then build a retaining wall to correct for the slope of the ground toward the back wall of my house, then haul in crushed rock and sand. The patio’s surface is about two thousand reclaimed bricks: assorted antique bits and pieces of the history of my home city of Seattle, some of them from the original harbour steps dating to the 1880s. It took me all summer.
I could get run over by a bus tomorrow, or a major earthquake could destroy my house, or rampaging condo developers could devour my quaint neighbourhood. (As we were reminded just the other day by yet another article in the Seattle Times newspaper, Seattle is the fastest-growing major city in the United States over the past decade.) And anyway Donald Trump, of all people, is now President of the United States, and Seattle is the continental US city nearest to North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. And, even if we survive physically, nothing in American public life makes any sense anymore. Meanwhile, just a couple weeks ago the left-wing Seattle City Council passed a controversial “head tax” on large companies, which might have terminally antagonised the city’s largest employer, Amazon, whose CEO Jeff Bezos is the world’s wealthiest man.
So, given so much uncertainty on so many fronts, why bother building a patio? I don’t have a perfect answer, but I think I do have a pretty good one. My answer is that, regardless of all the bad things happening around the world and right here at home, my wife and I, and our friends and relatives plan to enjoy it for years to come and, I hope, to eventually pass it on intact for others to enjoy. Like planting a garden or writing a book, building a patio in an uncertain world is an exercise in enlisting the passage of time to advantage: an act of faith.
‘Faith' is a widely and glibly abused word, but the sense in which I use it here should ring true to anyone, religious or not, who lives in our world as it is and wants to do what he or she can to make it better. “Faith is not belief in spite of evidence,” said Clarence Jordan, the founder of Habitat for Humanity, “but a life in scorn of the consequences.” If you’re going to bother getting out of bed in the morning and doing anything at all, you have to believe that life is worth living and that human beings are meaningfully connected through time as well as across space. Needless to say, that can be easier said than done.
The summer after I built the patio, I painted the house a lovely periwinkle blue with dark-blue trim. It’s a very modest cedar-shingled cottage, just right for me, my wife and our two cats, more than 100 years old, at once well maintained and replete with its own very local history. And, although our house not really important to anyone but us, it’s irreplaceable. It could be torn down, but it could never be built again. So we see ourselves as its stewards.
In the meantime, we’ve also given a lot of attention to the garden. We built three raised vegetable beds, and we plant those every spring and enjoy their harvest throughout the summer and autumn. The lilac bush that I transplanted from my mother-in-law’s garden six years ago is now 10 feet high and on its way to being enormous. The four clumping bamboo along the west fence are filling in very nicely. And, as I write this, I’m actually sitting on the patio that I built.
What does any of us have to do with anything? Nothing, and everything. All my life I’ve followed my childhood aspiration of becoming a writer, and many articles and several books later I’m still becoming one. In early adulthood the way I found to be a writer and make a living at the same time was journalism. I became a very engaged and alert political journalist, and I believe I’ve been a good one. But now, I don’t really know how to be a journalist anymore.
Or rather, I know how to be a journalist, but I’m not sure anymore what the point is. I think Pakistani journalists have an advantage in this over American ones, because for decades Pakistanis have been all too aware of the obvious and rampant dysfunction in the Pakistani state and establishment. Sometimes this leads Pakistani journalists to be what I would consider overly bullish on the value of state-building and state power, but I understand why they would follow that impulse. We American journalists, by contrast, long took for granted that the North American imperial state we live under, while perhaps sinister, was at least intact and functional. Now, courtesy of Trump (and what Trump represents, and what Trump is a symptom of), it isn’t anymore. So writing about public issues in America – any issue, from gun control to education to nuclear diplomacy – no longer has a stable context. So it becomes very difficult to know what to write, or even why one should bother writing it.
So, I find myself sitting on the patio I built, looking around at the lilac and bamboo and marigolds and potatoes that I planted, and feeling satisfied that I have in fact accomplished something in this world, notwithstanding all the ephemeral words that have spilled from my fingers about all the passing events over which, I now understand, I’ve never had any control. •
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