Everyone Has a Story To Tell

Not seeing the wood for the trees.

A fair amount of posts over this two year blog journey has been about my past. It has been a way to tell my story. Recalling the past creates a variety of emotions. Positive ones like excitement at the memory of ‘good times’. Thankfulness for people and family. Those that have brought leadership, joy and friendship to me at various stages of life. Opportunities and experiences that have been a blessing.  

There can also be darker feelings which may or may not be true. Regret at ‘what might have been’. Sometimes a sense of failure to grasp opportunities. Suspect I am not alone in this light and dark view of what’s gone before.

My story is more than just a collection of experiences. Like looking at ‘old fashioned’ picture albums (suppose that ages me). Each photo showing people, places or times that elicit memories. The question the photo can’t relate to me is ‘what was I thinking? what was I feeling?’ at the time? 

For a long time I have been in the habit of writing a journal. Most of it is fairly mundane. Details of my day, people met, chores done. Maybe something I have learnt or experiences. Occasionally some notes are more insightful. Maybe something of what I actually thought or felt years ago.  However it’s not inspiring to find some struggles appear much the same as back then! 

The temptation is to regard life merely as something to be built and developed. That more experience will somehow add value or meaning to my existence. More experience of course comes naturally with age. No effort required! It seems to me that in today’s world experiences, in and of themselves, can often be ‘used’ and discarded. Much like we consume goods and services and then put in the trash. To be forgotten in the deepest sense. There is an irony in the term ‘bucket list’

Reflecting on my story should not be an exercise in trying to ‘make sense’ of things. Life is messy and filled with mystery. Neither should I view the past nostalgically. Some vain attempt at re-creating ‘good times’ in the past. It is an attempt at recognising that all of my past is part of who I am today. We are all searching for meaning and significance, to be part of a bigger story. 

One way of defining the spiritual life is to see it as a life in which we keep making connections between God’s story and our own….. The story of Christ is therefore not “the greatest story ever told”, but the only story ever told. It is the story from which all other stories receive their meaning and significance“. 

Henri Nouwen, The selfless way of Christ p.71, 75.

Life is unique and rich. We all have stories to tell but may not always listen to each other. What is important to us might not be shared. Your story is different from mine. A word that comes to mind is incomparable. Stories honestly told are not to be compared, ranked with others. As such they can inspire others and give hope.

The Art of Conversation’ by Elisabeth Grant**

Every life is a gift. Given by the Giver. It may have been spoilt or misused. The good news is life can be redeemed. That is worth celebrating.  

“The son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” ‘But the father said to his servants, “Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” So they began to celebrate.” 

Luke chapter 15 vs 21-24 NIVUK

** elisabethgrantart.com

Endings and Beginnings

Cherry blossom

After 2 years in Japan my wife and I felt our time there was coming to an end. Our task had been to represent Operation Mobilisation (OM) in the country. OM was the Christian organisation we worked for. The work engaged us with people, churches and other groups throughout the land.

We also spent time with Japanese of many ages and backgrounds through teaching English. The cost of living compared to Europe was very high so we needed the extra income. It was an opportunity to meet and engage meaningfully with people we would not ordinarily meet. I have written a bit more about this in Japan – Anyone for English

Our commitment to working in Japan was coming to an end. The thinking was that we would establish some things but then hand over the work to Japanese and others who would lead the work longer term. Other groups with more experience had said it was difficult for a westerner over 30 to master the language. We had therefore decided when we first went to think of a 2 year commitment. And so it was. We then passed on the baton, as it were, to others to develop things further. It is heartening today to see how the work there has grown over the years. It was a privilege to be a part of the story. There had been challenges and difficulties. Our main memory though was of an enriching, rewarding time which we look back on fondly.  

On the practical side we either sold or gave away most things. One family kindly took us for a night to a spa hotel in the mountains which was a real refreshment when our home became very primitive (i.e. no chairs, tables or bed!). It also reminded us that there are places of solitude and quiet in Japan! Our last few days in Nagano were enjoyably spent in our landlady’s home…May 10th, the day of our departure, came. Tears were shed. It had been one of the hardest times of our lives but these thoughts were lost in an overwhelming sense of God’s grace. Left to ourselves we’d have left prematurely. He had taken us through the difficulties and given the strength to persevere when all seemed lost. We were able to leave with a sense that God’s hand would continue to be on what we had been initiating. Japanese were becoming more involved which had long been our prayer. We know not when or if we can visit these distant shores again but we do know that we have left a part of our lives there. It seems that in God’s work our hearts often seem to be broken only to be mended and enlarged again. —Extract from letter to friends Sept 1994.

Our next steps after leaving were uncertain. Initial plan was to return to Europe. Then probably settle in either of our home countries, Sweden or the UK. Flying in to London in the spring of 1994 felt a little strange. We had got used to crowded living. It sounds strange now but flying from Tokyo to London seemed like being transported to a rural idyll. So much less traffic and far fewer crowds of people. From the air at least there seemed plenty green fields. So much space! It definitely felt less stressed. 

On our initial return we were part of a 10 day leadership course held by our organisation. It took place in West Watch, a country house on the outskirts of London. There were 11 of us, a comfortable number. Most participants we knew from previous times on MV Logos, India and Europe. A very welcome time of renewing friendships, spiritual refreshment and learning. It was just what we needed – a kind of buffer as we reoriented back to the west. 

We then spent the summer of ‘94 with each of our families in Sweden and the UK. All the time wondering what our next steps would be. Changing environment was nothing new but was still not easy. It was one thing as a single person to live a somewhat itinerant lifestyle. To sustain that as a couple was different

My 17 years with OM had taken me to live and work in about 70 countries. The last ten of those years was as a married couple. When we left Japan my wife and I had lived in 8 homes on 3 continents. We had experienced many blessings. Absolutely no regrets. However as the Bible says ‘there is a time for everything**’. We needed some stability. Moving home as well as adjusting to a new country or culture takes up much energy. Maybe it was our time to be more settled. 

In September we attended OM’s annual conference looking for fresh direction and inspiration. None came. Sometimes doors close. There were several possibilities within our organisation (at one point 12!) but none seemed right. We took it as a signal to step into a new time of life.

Sometimes the way ahead is not clear

In one sense this was saying goodbye to a way of life we had become accustomed to. Also it was a farewell to many colleagues around the world we had come to know over the years. However in another way our commom faith in Jesus’ promises meant there would be no permanent goodbyes. Bonds formed through working together for a common purpose would remain. A precious hope that transcends time and our life circumstances. 

So in the autumn of 1994 we moved to Scotland. We had no direction as to what to do next or where to live. An uncertain, difficult time. For the first time in 5 months we stayed on our own for 2 weeks, house sitting for a couple on holiday.

It was around then that a couple we were friends with got in touch. They had been supporting us in our work with OM. He was a trustee with Prison Fellowship Scotland. Would I be interested in working with prisoners, ex-offenders and their families? Wow, that certainly came as a bolt from the blue. Up till then I had virtually no experience of this kind of work. My initial reaction was no. I was still emotionally attached to OM. However after a short time realised that this was the next step. Another friend arranged for a flat we could initially stay in. It was the beginning of a new chapter in life, work and home for both of us. Maybe the subject of a future blog.

** Ecclesiastes 3 verse 1a

A Harvest of Memories

In my summer break as a student in 1975 I took a job in Canada. Looking back it was doing something I am not now proud of. Picking tobacco. How doing this squared with my convictions at the time I don’t remember. I do know that smoking and tobacco was not seen as negatively back then as it is nowadays. Humbling to think how much I am influenced by the current values in society. I am no prophet but wonder if refined sugar will go the way of tobacco in the future.

Whatever my scruples or lack thereof the pay seemed very good. An odd comparison that stuck in my mind was that if you worked hard you could earn the same in a month as a British MP earned then.

So I flew from the UK to Toronto at the end of July on a chartered plane. Was headed for south west Ontario where the ‘tobacco belt’ was. The climate and soil there suited the crop. A bonus about being in this area was my aunt, uncle and family lived not too far away so was able to see them on several occasions that summer. 

After a few days at my aunt’s I made my way to a warehouse in Tillsonburg where along with others met with a bunch of farmers. We were then designated to work at individual farms. 

Despite what appeared to me attractive pay the workforce seemed to be drawn mainly from UK students. Were told that Trinidadian sugar farmers also were employed who came during the off season. No idea why. Maybe it was the collective I was with or perhaps there were better farm jobs available to citizens.  

Also don’t know what the criteria for assignment to a particular farm was. In any case I ended up working for a Hungarian farmer along with 5 others from England and Northern Ireland. At this point maybe I should be relating some joke about ‘a Scotsman, an Englishman and an Irishman in a tobacco field’ However I don’t have any jokes!

Our host and his family were welcoming and very kind. They had come to Canada after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. Accommodation was basic. Bunks in a converted henhouse. Amenities included an outside tap and a shower in a greenhouse with water from an oil drum heated by the sun. We were not complaining as our stay was only for the 6 or so weeks of the harvest. Working, eating and sleeping would take up most of our time.

The spartan accommodation was more than made up for by an abundance of food. Huge cooked breakfasts. The family fussing if you didn’t eat 4 eggs. Meals later in the day included plentiful chicken provided courtesy of granny who wrang their necks in the yard. 

Farmhouse eating was supplemented by a regular delivery to the fields of coffee and baking. A welcome picnic break. Of course all this generous feeding had a motive, keep picking.

The work itself was intensive in usually hot, very humid conditions. As said there were 6 of us. When picking with the harvester machine 5 of us sat in low slung seats. Each sat over a furrow and so the machine was 5 rows of plants wide. The 6th person as driver sat high up in the middle of the 5 rows moving the machine slowly along the field. Needless to say the driving was the cushiest work. It’s coveted position everyone got a turn of. For the 5 picking as each plant came you took off the bottom 3 leaves quickly by hand and put them in a bucket. It would take about a week to take 3 leaves off all the plants. We then went round the crop again taking the next lowest 3 leaves. This time the tobacco would be stronger as less leaves on plant. And so on each week for the 6-7 weeks of harvest until no more leaves left. Each pick had stronger and stronger tobacco destined for mild or medium strength cigarettes, cigars etc. 

Another technique for strengthening the tobacco was to remove the flowers on the top of the plant (known as topping). I see from my very brief diary entries of the time that this was done quite frequently throughout the harvest. The season was from beginning of August to mid-Sept. so a potential problem was frost. To offset this small fires in oil drums were lit at night, scattered throughout the fields. This raised the temp. enough whenever there was a risk. Plants were also protected by pesticides and at least once a crop spraying plane came. 

Each day the deal was the same. Fill one of the barns (kilns) with leaves which were hung to dry before taken to market. It was the farmer who oversaw this operation and decided when barn was full. One barn full was the piece work for the day and for which we were paid. Some days the barns seemed to have a huge capacity. It was team work and a day’s work depended on how much collectively the 6 of us picked and not what we individually gathered. A possible source of tension. I think the attractive pay rate kept us Brits sufficiently motivated to each pull our weight. Once the farmer called it a day this would signal a welcome shower and a big meal.

The main issue in the fields was the danger of lightning. We were told it would easily home in on a large metal harvesting machine in a vast field of rain drenched leaves. When there was a thunderstorm you vacated the harvester and got out of the field quickly. Although we avoided lightning in the fields our converted henhouse was struck one night. Fortunately we had a lightning conductor but the bang lifted us clear out of our beds. 

The other occupational hazard was nicotine poisoning. Not from smoking or inhaling but from handling the leaves and the sap. It gave a skin rash / allergic reaction. Our farmer, no doubt keen that we would stay fit and keep picking, took us all for steroid injections at a hospital.

We occasionally got a break from work and one time in particular stands out. A few of us decided to walk along the country roads and hitch a ride to the beach. The farm wasn’t far from the north shores of Lake Erie. A pick up truck stopped and the driver said we were welcome to hop into the back. His only query was ‘did we mind cats?’ No problem we thought. Climbing over the tailboard there was indeed a cat. The thing was it was a big one, a cougar. Fortunately it was tethered but had a generous range of most of the back. Our lift was spent leaning into the corners staying out of reach of the animal. Memories are very selective as 46 years later I recall nothing about the beach visit, only the fear of sharing a ride with a large feline. 

As with any harvest eventually the crop was picked and our job was done. Time to move on. We Brits must have bonded as some of us then spent hard earned cash on a car trip down the east coast of the US to Miami and back. 

I leave you to pick your own memories by recommending a listen to Barbara Striesand singing The Way We Were

Window on the Past

Recently I have been transcribing old letters and reports from 30 – 40 years ago into a digital form. My work at that time involved travel to many countries and reporting back to those I was responsible to as well as to friends. I am thankful to have this window. A record, a snapshot into my past. Alas this window can be murky in places. Just like memory some of the typing is now faded. For those old enough to remember such technology these documents were often a typewritten 4th or 5th carbon copy. No copy and paste in those days. Looking back having something typewritten seems very tactile compared with computers. Fingers pressing letters which hit a ribbon smashing into paper. 

My typewriter was a portable version proudly taken on planes as hand luggage. A management tool to be seen with! Perhaps like a top of the range mobile phone today except I think it weighed about 6kg. This, along with my even heavier briefcase and ‘7 Star’ diary* meant you felt a fully equipped executive. Occasional communication tools also included expensive telexes or even more expensive and time consuming international phone calls. Sometimes these calls had to be booked one or two days in advance and involved hanging around in waiting rooms for hours. Even telexes were at times re-routed via bigger cities if you were communicating from a small place. Looking back it seems such a hassle yet at the time any messages sent these ways felt really important and urgent.

Back to the transcribing of these old reports. Some of them have proved not so straightforward to import to the computer by scanning methods such as Optical Character Recognition (OCR). The faded type was just readable but provng a challenge for the software. Instead I find myself dictating to the computer or correcting /retyping chunks of gobbledegook from incorrect OCR. This meant I was re-verbalising, re-thinking and reflecting chunks of what I wrote then. It is a strange but instructive experience using words by the ‘old me’ from several decades ago… 

1. My language and even some grammar don’t sound like what I would use nowadays. This is even though English is my mother tongue and back then I had finished formal education in English. Suppose it is obvious that the experience of life and the passing of the years changes how I express myself. However it is an odd feeling to have clear evidence of this in black and white by having it sounded back to me in my own voice. 

2. How I spoke of my faith back then also seems a bit different to how I express myself nowadays. It is clear I was a product of my time and the people around me. I trust I was sincere both then and now. Hope that part of growth is to use language that is more ‘me’. Words I take more ownership of.

There is a temptation to be wistful for times past. However the good news I take away today from these faded bits of paper is that the old me is still part of who I am today! This is despite the fact I have changed, think differently and have a different lifestyle from then. Also like the old type parts of me are fading! It’s wonderful to know that, like clay, when I need a reworking I can put myself in the hands of the master potter. 

*The contents of these diaries were replaced each year and you kept the leather ring binder. All the rage in the ‘70s and early 80s.