This World Is Not My Home by Jeremy Paden (part 3)

III.

Patriotism has always made me uncomfortable. Growing up as a U.S. American 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 ¼ roots), I know enough to disbelieve the myth of the moral foundation of our country. I avoid church on holidays like July Fourth and Memorial Day. I can’t tolerate the religion of nation; it seems idolatrous to me. This discomfort comes, I suppose, with the territory, with 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 persons she’d ever met, solely based 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. However, there have been times, when asked, that I’ve responded with a barrage of my own, “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 it’s asked, 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.”

The curious will further ask, “In Italy? Aren’t they already Christian?”

“Yes. Well, we’re Protestants; my grandfather fought in Italy in WWII; he felt he had to go back.”

Some will then inquire about denominational affiliation. Those that know something of American religious groups forged in the 19th century, will, when I tell them, 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 whether at my parents’ house with my siblings and their growing families when they come up from Chile or Mexico or down from Oklahoma, or with my aunts and uncles and cousins, the lot of us gathered from Alaska, Austria, Brazil, the Caribbean in 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 (and we did not), do not drink (though our family, going back at least to my grandfather, did), and we 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 siblings 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 conviction that this world is not our home. No, we are just a passing through, and it doesn’t matter where we live. Our treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue, and those are the ones that matter. And let’s not forget, we simply can’t feel at home in this world anymore.

In fact, we never have.

This World Is Not My Home by Jeremy Paden (part 2)

II.

Maybe her name was Pat. I can’t recall.

My high school years were a procession of medical mission and Habitat for Humanity work groups. Two, three, even more, a year would come down. When I wasn’t working the makeshift pharmacy, stuffing bags full of medicine, giving children swigs of mebendezole, 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.

Pat was in her early fifties. 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, 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.

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, to 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 my regret and a need to defend myself.

The tape I play in my mind has me unfolding before her the history of Anglo-American aggression in Latin America since Teddy’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.

There was the fact that our encounter happened on this island, an island LBJ invaded in 1965 to keep it from turning Commie.

That the U.S. Marines left once order was restored in the form of a man who governed for twelve years with the use of death squads.

That people I loved knew victims.

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.

“Tilaran, Costa Rica. Dad was working with Nicaraguan refugees. My brother and I had just finished a run in the rain. We were supposed to have smiled; I was hungry.”

This World Is Not My Home by Jeremy Paden (part 1)

This World Is Not My Home | by Jeremy Paden

I.

In my first passport picture, I sit on my mother’s lap. Beside us stands my sister. Vietnam had just ended, and Dad, whose number was never called during his undergraduate years in the States, 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.

“Mr. Sunshine” – the writer age 20 months in Milan.

My earliest memory, perhaps, is not my sister’s nightmare on 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. The air was pungent with fresh fish and foods I did not recognize, but it’s not like I have a clear, sharp recollection. It’s colors, shapes, smells, bright tropical light, bustle, and unintelligible language. I have one other memory from Nigeria that I know is mine. Which is to say, not from stories told me, not from pictures taken. It too is vague. And it’s standing in a thatched-roof, open-air hut, people singing church songs in Yoruba. I don’t know how early most people remember. I suppose these were imprinted only because Lagos is nothing like Milan, Italy, where Dad was studying medicine.

Though we left Italy when I was only four, I have a catalogue of memories from those years, all of which are, I presume, from after Nigeria. All are also 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, 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, ten cities, and around 18 discreet residences, not counting the bed under my aunt and uncle’s stairs in Goleta, California, where I worked as a security guard for an RV camp and at a roadside organic food stand the eight months before heading off to college.

In a Man’s Voice: Poems & Essay by Jeremy Paden

Jeremy Dae Paden was born in Italy and raised in Latin America. He teaches Spanish at Transylvania University, He is published in Calíope, a critical journal of poetry of Spain and the Americas during the Renaissance and Baroque periods.  He is also a member of the Affrilachian Poets and a collaborator in Rose Tree Writers.

Though Jeremy and I have only met in person once, we have somehow found a writing connection, as well as a parenting connection, that bring me tremendous joy. I don’t know anyone else who, upon hearing that I was dyeing absorbant crystals red and brown with wine and coffee for my child’s science project, would have asked if I would send him some more detail so he might work it into a poem.

Jeremy isn’t a poet when he has time to be one. He is one when he wakes and when he sleeps, every day. I can imagine standing behind him in the grocery store and hearing him practicing words about the spiritual ebb and flow of the human psyche as he ponders the nature of standing in lines.

I am grateful to learn from his world view, and I look forward to sharing his 8-part Essay on Childhood: This World Is Not My Home. You may read some of Dr. Paden’s poetry online via the following links, and I hope you will!

You can read more about the 2012 Essays on Childhood writers here.

Mountain Word: “Ars Poetica” read by Jeremy Paden

This post is a re-blog of an original post by Mountain Word on July 4, 2011.  Click here to read more about Jeremy on Esse Diem: Easter Sunday, 2010 and Poetic Ruminations from a Small Town.  I attended this reading, and saw what you see on this video, live.  I am pleased to have the chance to share this reading with you.  Something about hearing the spoken word by the poet himself is simply magical.

I wish you could have been there.

Affrilachian poet Jeremy Paden reads “Ars Poetica,” his take on the art of poetry. Paden is an assistant professor of Spanish at Transylvania University in Lexington, KY. His poems have been published in the Atlanta Review, Borderlands and elsewhere.

This is the first of a series of video excerpts MountainWord is editing from a two-hour reading by Affrilachian poets and open mic spoken word artists at Bluegrass Cafe on the final day of FestivALL 2011 in Charleston, W.Va. The event was put together by poet and organizer Crystal Good.

Easter Sunday, 2010 by Jeremy Paden

Outside our bedroom window the weeping cherry
and Bradford pear glow with auroral light;
morning has not yet broken, but soon the sun,
not just its curving light, will clear the horizon.
A myriad birds, whose songs I cannot recognize,
utterly indifferent to our desire to sleep past
sun’s rising and well into this spring morning, sing.
Even our early-to-rise children, knowing it Sunday,
sleep late, but this first-light lambency, these birdsongs,
they wake us from a slumber different than sleep
to a world alive, in bloom, in song, now green.

Jeremy Dae Paden was born in Italy and raised in Latin America. He teaches Spanish at Transylvania University .  Among his many achievements, he is published in Calíope, a critical journal of poetry of Spain and the Americas during the Renaissance and Baroque periods.  He is also a member of the Affrilachian Poets.  

It is an honor and a privilege for Esse Diem to post Professor Paden’s work.  April is National Poetry Month; click here to find out more about celebrating poetry and its vital place in American culture.

Image credit: E. Gaucher