Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Living Well…Writing Stories

The decisions we make today will define the stories that get told about us… we are all writing a story with our lives.  ~ Josh Becker

That’s a sobering thought.  And, I might add, it’s a thought we should have from time to time…just to remind us that we do not live unto ourselves, that people around us are watching us and listening to us.  They tell our story and will tell our story, whether we want them to or not.

Near our home in Lance aux Epines, Grenada, when I was growing up, two old women lived together in a small house.  We really never knew them.  In fact, we couldn't get to know them because every time we got close to their home, they would come out and threaten us—“Get away from here or we’ll call the police!”  We didn't even have malicious intentions…well, not in the beginning anyway.  They continued to over-react and threaten us for seemingly no reasons at all.  So, we began to push back.  And, then Halloween came around.  Of course, we had to trick-or-treat at every house around us, so not even the old ladies would be spared.  They were given the wonderful opportunity of gifting us with candies…but, again, “Get out of here!”  So, we rained down rocks on their roof…and in Grenada at that time, roofs were all corrugated tin…and the sound of raining stones was quite deafening for them, I’m sure.  They called the police…but, really—it took them an hour to arrive, and we were long gone.

The point of the brief vignette is this—the story we have about the old ladies is a story of rejection, rudeness, and retribution.  How different might that story have been if the old ladies had taken time to tell one of us about a desire for quiet and solitude, if they had engaged us just briefly to tell us that they were in fact ‘old’ and just wanted to be left alone?  Their decisions and actions indeed determined their story.  (Oh, I cannot in any way justify the silly, childish response on our part, so I won’t even try!  Now, that foolishness is part of my story….)

Dr. Sarah Wingard was a person to be feared above all others in our college English department. Yet, she was perhaps the least imposing person physically.  Where her slight 5’ frame and arthritis twisted hands might have revealed weakness, an amazingly intimidating persona with a withering look made her seem larger than life.  She was not an amazing lecturer, per se…but somehow she captured our minds and carried us with her through centuries of literature, introducing us to hundreds of unforgettable characters.  While the average person on our campus would know well the reputation of this lady, a few of us had and have a different take on Dr. Wingard.  She was a person who cared about her students, but one wouldn't find that out until one needed care.

I had been wrestling with some depression, issues of personal identity, and some soggy winter weather—all three of which conspired to keep me snuzzled in my bed for a day or two…or three.  Then, the knock came at the door late one morning.  “Hey, Jon.  Dr. Wingard wants you at her office today at 2pm.”  That was all it took.  She sent word to me to be at her office?  Yikes!  I knew I was in for now.  I had skipped her class twice in a row.  With fear and trepidation, and with a pocket full of well-crafted excuses and explanations, I went to her office door.  I rapped softly and heard that voice, “Come in.”  I went in.  She sat.  “Sit down, Jon.”  So I sat.  “What’s going on, Jon—you've missed two classes, and you’re going to get so far behind you won’t be able to catch up.  You’re too smart and too good a student to let that happen.  What’s going on?”  All of my pretense fell away, my excuses went out the window…and I just told her about my depression and struggles.  She gently reminded me of the poets we had studies, of their struggles…and pointed me back to the same literature we had studied in class.  “There, in those words, you will find words that will lift you and carry you and inspire you.”  And, she was right.  To this day, the words of Wordsworth and Blake and Shelley DO move me and carry me.  And, because of her compassion, to this day, I remember Dr. Wingard not only as a ‘formidable’ professor, but as a person who cared enough to call me out of my pit and point me towards the light….

So, our decisions and our actions do pen our stories.  When we reach out to others, when we engage, when we act out of good intentions, we write stories that others will eagerly tell with joy.  When we refuse to engage or when we engage negatively, we write stories that others will tell as well…stories of warning and how not to be.  Therefore, I determine anew and afresh to act in ways that write a good story…on the outside chance that someday, somewhere, someone will tell others stories of Jon.  May they be good stories….


Sunday, February 24, 2013

Finding Home

For me, it’s a well-worn theme related to the great “who-am-I?” quest.  Where is home?  What serves at that anchor for me when I need to know that I have a past?  The older I get, the more important it is to me to have a place called home.  And, while there have been shifts and so forth through the years, “home” really has not ever changed for me. 

Some of you will have read my various “Third Culture Kid” (Pt.1 , Pt.2 , Pt.2.5)entries in the past—the story of my moving and traveling around as a child/teenager…and the sense of homeless that has often accompanied that.  Even with all the travels and culture ‘basket-turn-over,’ the real place that is home for me is Grenada in the southern Caribbean.  I lived seven years of my life there (1975-1982).  You may be thinking, “Just seven years??”  Well, consider this:  Seven years in Grenada is almost twice as long as I have lived anywhere else…ever!  Add to that the fact that I spent the most formative years of my life (besides my years in higher education)—we arrived in Grenada when I was entering Standard 5 (5th Grade)…and we left after I finished my ‘O-Levels’ (now known as CXC Exams).  So, of all the places I’ve lived, Grenada earns and deserves the distinction of being “home” for me.

I recall arriving in Grenada in 1975.  We first rented a small house in Lance aux Epines (say ‘lance a’ peens’) across the road from where Probie, Rachel and Gracie lived.  We played with them every day.  I remember sitting in the shop at Probie’s house, watching his father repair lawn-mowers… ‘playing’ with all the cool stuff down there…and learning a bit about how small motors worked and how to work on them.  The Evans boys were around as well… ‘Mango’ and his brother (sorry, memory fails!).  We would sometimes play with the boy up the road whose father was head of Barclay’s Bank?  I just remember a huge house with an open courtyard in the center.  Past that house is where Clancy lived—the millionaire thief who had escaped to Grenada.

Within a few months, my parents had found a more permanent place for us, and we moved into the Cooke-Yarborough House.  It wasn’t far from where we had been living, so we stayed in touch with our first friends, but we also made new friends as well.  There was Gregor across the street, a boy from Switzerland who was my age, whose father worked with one of the banks.  And, there were the “terrible twins” who I found myself playing with often (in fact, we got caught stealing cigarettes from the Mini-Mart across from The Red Crab at one time…!)  Gillian and Trevor lived ‘below’ our house…down the hill, and we ‘enjoyed’ a love-hate relationship, one day playing together, and the next day landing stones on each others’ homes!  And, of course, our immediate neighbors—Andrew, Natalie and Alison—became some of our best friends. 

Peter lived not too far away, and he would end up over at Andrew’s or they’d all end up in our garage throwing darts, making black coral jewelry, playing table tennis,…or we’d head down to the beach below our house to go snorkeling/spear-fishing, or push the ‘raft’ up and down the coasts of that then-deserted bay.

At school, there were another set of friends.  Harold, Anthea, Phillip, Eunice, Samuel, Ronnie, Kennrick, Bobby, Gordon, Audrey, Gillian, Sharleen—we all hung out together.  Most of us were in the school band together.  Bobby and I just sort of fell in together out of similar interests and a streak of rebellion (ha!)  In fact, most of the other students called Bobby and me ‘co-pilots’…because they rarely saw one of us without the other.  Most of my “home” friends went to either Westmoreland Secondary School or Presentation Brothers College.  So, my home friends and school friends were not the same.  That made things a little complex, but it ended up working out fine—all things considered.  Anyway, my days at Berean Christian Academy are fondly remembered.  In fact, I still think that the preparation I received there really got me ready for university in the US. 

My father, “Pastor Herrin”, was the founding missionary of the Grenada Baptist Churches on the island.  So, every Sunday morning and every Thursday evening, we were in church…and I had my friends there as well.  The “inner circle” included Terrance, Louise and me.  The three of us would hang out…go to the beach…sit on the back row during service and pass notes…just ‘lime’ together.  We were really close….  There were also Aaron, Hensley, Gladys, and others who were a wonderful part of my life in the church.

In 1978, a big change came along—the organization my parents worked for bought us a house.  Still in Lance aux Epines, but now it was across on the south side right across from the entrance to the Boat Yard.  There, we soon made friends with Frances at the end of our road…with Karen up on the hill—where one of my early good friends, Richard (Richie), had lived.  No longer within easy walking distance of my old friends, I began to spend a lot of time on the beach.  Also, I now had ‘wheels’ (my moto), so my friends went beyond walking distance.  

Oh, I didn’t abandon my friends on the other side…but I didn’t see them as often.
Somewhere along the way, I befriend George and Fu-Fu who lived in St. Georges…whose family ran businesses in the city.  I would meet them on Grand Anse beach…go up to their home for smashing table-tennis competitions…and enjoy the amazing Middle Eastern foods that came out of their kitchen!  We planned parties…one of which actually came to fruition—a small dance that included Virginia and Negar and others….  Virginia and her sister, Claudia, also became good friends.

A fellow who graduated from my school and some new students there had motorcycles, so I would cruise the area with Vishnu and the Lawrence boys from time to time, trading motos and racing around.
Yes, my life in Grenada was an amazing life, and I’ve managed to mention the names of many people who impacted my life in wonderful ways.   Many of these people are still friends today with whom I exchange notes and comments on Facebook:  Natalie, Alison, Rachel, Negar, Virginia, Claudia, Louise, Eunice, Shar, Gordon, Peter, Nigel (one of the ‘terrible twins’ who turned out to be a fairly nice guy! ha, ha…), Fu-Fu, Gillian, Anthea, Aaron, Hensley…and others (who I hope are not offended for not having been mentioned or included—time and space limit me from a full ‘roll-call.’)

In 1982, my parents moved us to the US—a strange and foreign land to me.  Since I had finished high school young in Grenada, I did another two years of high school in the US so I would be the same age as others entering university.  From those two years of school in the US, I have one—yes, ONE (1)—friend with whom I am still in touch.  From the university, I have less than five friends with whom I’m in touch.  After three years in Venezuela, perhaps a dozen people with whom I communicate.  Three more years in Mexico results in maybe 15-20 lasting friendships. 

When I look at my Facebook, I have 96!! friends from or associated with Grenada…people I have met and known and shared my life with over the last 40 years.  Some of those are friends of friends that I’ve gotten know more recently, but I almost 70 of those are people that I knew from my early years.

So, yes…Grenada is home for me.  I am connected to the people…my best memories are there…and, I might add, my dreams are there.  People often ask or consider the question, “If money were no object, what would you do?”  For me, I don’t even have to think about it—I’d move to Grenada.  Oh, I’d want to remain a teacher, educator…but I’d rather be doing it in Grenada, giving back to the land and the people who gave me so much, who made me who I am today.  Yes, ah dey, mon!

Sunday, February 17, 2013

What We Do & Who We Are

In a perfect world, what we do and who we are fall into a beautiful alignment. Even in our imperfect world, there are those who find this alignment…some for a season and a few for a lifetime.

My job title is “Institutional Effectiveness & Assessment Analyst.” Seeing my title, you might actually think that I am an analyst. But, you’d be mistaken. You see, in my heart, I am a teacher, an educator. A set of circumstances in the last year moved me into this position, but I’ll save that for another time. Suffice to say, what I do is not in line with who I really am. I don’t love that, but it is what it is.

However, in my position as an analyst, I do have the freedom to teach a course each semester at our college. The Office of Institutional Effectiveness & Assessment ‘owns’ me for eight hours a day, but before or after those eight hours, I am free to do as I wish. And, thanks to a wonderful English department chair and a constant need for adjunct instructors, I get to teach an evening course each semester.

Now, I could have taken an attitude of “all or nothing”—I want to be a teacher, or I want nothing to do with it. But if I did that, I would miss out on knowing the 18 wonderful students I have this semester, students whose lives I’m entering, with whom I’m sharing my life. I’m teaching them writing…and—hopefully!—a whole lot more. Since I need to work to support my family, I’ll take the analyst job and make the very best of it; since my soul burns to teach and be with students, I’ll take whatever teaching opportunity—large or small—that comes my way.

I have a feeling that this same disjunction happens in the life of faith. What we do and who we are spiritually often doesn’t line up either. So many followers of Jesus want to spend their lives in service to God…but there’s work at banks, firms, restaurants, etc. Many, I’m sure, would enjoy spending day after day losing themselves in Scripture, song, or prayer…would prefer to be far away in a distant land sharing the faith through friendships…would rather be constructing a house of worship or training young Christian leaders. But, what they do and who they are just don’t line up.

What to do? The same thing I do—take every opportunity large and small that comes along to live that life of faith. If there is a mission trip, jump on it! If there is a project in the community, latch onto it. If there is a chance to spend 20 minutes in Scripture, song, or prayer, enjoy those 20 minutes. If there is a short-term trip to a distant land, save your money and take the trip. If there is a mission team going to build a church or going to help train and encourage new Christian leaders, go for it! Don’t “wait for retirement.” And for goodness sakes, don’t take an attitude of “all or nothing.”

Yes, I wish that my work and my passion were better aligned, but they’re not…for now. Just another reminder that we live in a ‘broken world.’ But, I don’t have to let that ‘brokenness’ break me. I will do the work I have to do in order to be the provider I must be as a husband and father. But, I will also keep my eye on the dream…I’ll keep the passion alive…and work in that direction. And, every time I get a chance to take a step towards my true self, my passion, my faith, I’ll take it…and enjoy it…and make it count. We aren’t what we do—we are who we are…with the call and passions that God has placed in us.