Some Places Call Your Name

Alaska.  The name has always had some kind of hold on me.  When I was a boy I can remember looking at pictures of snow-covered mountains and glaciers and polar bears and endless forests—always thinking that this was somewhere I should see.  I thought that the ‘Last Frontier’ sounded like the place for a young man with an adventurous spirit.  I could imagine hiking through the woods and being stunned by each new vista that opened.  I could imagine the cold, clear water of the rivers and alpine lakes.  I could taste the seafood and fish.  

I can recall how the contruction of the Alaskan Pipeline promised good paying jobs and hard conditions.  I did not have enough money to get there, but it sounded like something I would love to do.  I had friends who talked about heading north for the money.  

When my brother was stationed outside of Anchorage he always wanted me to come up to visit.  He regaled me with stories of fishing and the mountains and what a wonderful place this was.  Again, I wanted to be there, but the budget hardly allowed me enough money for gas to get to work, much less airfare to that remote and wonderful place.  As much as I wanted to go, there was no practical way to make it happen.  

Last year my wife came in the door one evening and announced that she was sending me to Alaska as our anniversary present.  This came out of nowhere!  This was about the last thing that I would have expected.  

She told me that a good friend of ours was heading to Alaska on a mission trip and wanted me to go.  It was only about a month away—not much time to plan.  But the sound of Alaska rang in my ears and soul again.  Could it finally be time to go?  

I prayed about it, thought about it, counted up my spare change, looked at the calendar, made some calls for more details.  In other words, as much as it sounded ideal, there was still a practical side of getting there and being there.  As it had always been with me, this was something of a dream.  We tend to be unsure of ourselves when it appears that a dream might actually be coming true.  We pinch ourselves to see if we are awake and if this is real.  

But we decided that it was, indeed, real.  Forms were filled out and finally transmitted to the mission organization.  Airfare was booked.  Bags were packed.  In what felt like a whirlwind, I found myself on my way to Alaska.  Flights were rerouted, connections were made, the day drew long, and the sun shone through the clouds as we made our way to Ketchikan, the Gateway to Alaska.  

Alaska was what I thought—a land of rugged beauty.  There were trees everywhere.  There was rain in good supply.  There were mountains that shot straight up from the sea.  There were boats and planes and water and wind.  It was cool and wet like one would expect of a rainforest.  The days were long and the sunsets spectacular.  I was only in the southest section of the state, but it made an impression.  

Of course, this was a mission trip, which means working with a team.  I had met some of our team in the Seattle airport.  I met more at the ferry terminal across the channel from the airport.  I met more when we arrived at Craig, Alaska, our home for the week.  From our different places and perspectives we all gathered.  

The people I encountered made as much of an impression as the landscape.  I was struck by how hardy people have to be to survive in such conditions.  People have learned to get along with simple things and to make do with fewer things than we take for granted in the lower 48 states.  People were open and kind and generous.  

The team was a joy.  We shared meals and sleeping spaces and the two bathrooms that were available to us.  We talked about where we were seeing God show up in the midst of basketball and Vacation Bible School.  We laughed and cried together.  We became friends with one another.  We shared both tearful and happy farewells.  

Alaska is still calling my name.  I am back on mission now and want to return many more times to see what the largest state has to offer.  I know that I want to see more and more of this incredible place of raw beauty.  I want to see the glaciers at Glacier Bay.  I want to see Denali on a clear day.  I want to watch the bears at Katmai.  I want to hike in the wilds.  I want to see the Northern Lights.  I feel like I have had only the appetizer at this point.  

But the people connected with all of this also call to me.  I am seeing them again.  We are sharing some stories and laughs.  We will be praying together.  I will get to thank them in person for the encouragement and appreciation that I have received from them.  I will have the chance to see others who are coming to Alaska for the first time.  I am excited to experience the adventure of Alaskan life again with these folks who have called me by name.  Yes, the place has always called to me, but now the people call me as well.

You Are Where You Are

When in Rome …  We can all finish that statement.  When in Rome, do as the Romans do.  I have never been to Rome, so I can not personally verify the claim.  

But it makes a good bit of sense in one way.  We are products of where we find ourselves.  Our location goes a long way in determining our occupation and our vocation.  In real estate circles the saying is that three things matter: location, location, location.  Yes, it does.  

I was born in Cheverly, Maryland.  But my family moved to Tennessee when I was a young boy.  I went from suburban sprawl to a house on the mountain in fairly short order.  I was not shaped much by Maryland.  I never developed a love for oysters that my older siblings had.  I did not know what it was like to have all manner of stores and entertainments readily at hand.  I did not experience life in the ‘little boxes’ made famous by the song in the 60s.  

I was shaped by mountains—the southern Appalachians, to be specific.  I grew up wandering the woods as one of my main forms of amusement.  I could go get lost in the woods for hours at a time.  I hiked and camped and swam in cold mountain streams.  I would sleep out on the balcony outside my bedroom to enjoy the night air and watch the stars.  We heated with wood and cutting and splitting firewood were a regular part of life.  

It was a different place than Maryland.  It was different than lots of other places, in fact.  It was not the big city; it was not even a small city.  It was a sleepy tourist town that filled to overflowing during the season and became almost a ghost town when the season was over.  It was very much tied to its mountain roots in terms of music and stories and culture.  It was growing into something much larger and more commercial, but in the days of my youth it was a quieter place that was fairly quaint—surrounded by natural beauty, and isolated from much of the broader culture of the day.  

Perhaps it was growing up here that has imprinted me with an acute sense of ‘place.’  Wherever I go I look for the distinctives that make one place different from another.  Not all mountains are the same; not all villages share the same stories; not all economies produce benefits for all; every place is unique in some way.  

When this piece is posted I will be on my way to Alaska.  It, too, is a place that has shaped me in some ways.  I only spent about 10 days there last year, but the rugged beauty and wild spaces made an impression.  I had never been to a place where eagles were as plentiful as crows in the mountains where I was raised.  I had never been to a place where the mountains come straight up from the shore. I had never been to a place where one could sense the forests that go on forever.  Alaska is a wild place that reminds me that I am very small in the scheme of things.  That is a reminder that we all need on occasion. 

There are also things about Alaska that remind me of Appalachia.  There amidst the riches of natural beauty there is also poverty.  Extractive enterprises produce money, but not always for those who live there and work to make the products.  There is a balance to be struck between enjoying the place and employing the place to make ends meet.  There are a few too many cars and houses that could use some paint and repair.  There are signs of industries that once thrived but have since been abandoned.  There are signs that the harshness of this place has left some marks on those who live there.  

But, also like Appalachia, there are people here who would not live anywhere else.  It is ‘home.’  The beauty of the place has made its impact on its people.  To remove them from the ridges and forests and shores and waters that they know so well would be to cut them off from a form of lifeline that sustains their souls.  To put them where they could not fish and hunt and enjoy the seasons would do them emotional and mental damage.  To take them out of their communities that share this land would be an extreme exile.  

We are creating a world in which ‘place’ is being lost.  Food in the Midwest is the same as the West Coast.  Television has pervaded homes in every region.  Our culture is getting homogenized at a rapid rate.  I am mindful that there are special places in the world—like Appalachia and Alaska—where some of their unique nature is still to be found and appreciated.   One’s character is formed in a particular context; we are persons who have been produced by the places of our lives.  Where you are makes a great impact on who you are.  

Focus!

I have always had a fascination with planning.  For as long as I can remember I have made plans for what I wanted the future to look like.  I have tried to envision the future in various sized blocks—what do I want to accomplish this week; what I do I want to achieve this year; what is on the ‘to-do list’ for today?  Always a question, always looking forward.  

This year I am doing something different in terms of planning.  Rather than just write out ‘annual goals’ which I have done for years, I am trying to be more intentionally focused on shorter blocks of time.  Rather than imagining great improvements that would be radical changes, I am trying to shorten the range to the immediate steps that can occur more quickly.  Rather than staring at an annual plan, I am focusing on 3 months at a time.  90 days is more manageable than 365.  

The shorter perspective has been working.  I feel as if I have done more in the first six months of this year than I have in some years altogether.  I have made progress in a number of directions.  I have accomplished many items both personally and professionally.  I have tracked these changes on a daily and quarterly basis.  I have focused more on taking smaller steps.  It is good that I have made some progress because I know how far I have to go.  This has produced a list of items not for which I look for recognition; it is a list of reminders that being focused on the right things will move me in the right direction.  Focusing on the more immediate has moved me further than I would have anticipated.  

In line with that, I am seeing the difference between goals, projects, and tasks in a new light.  Sometimes people, myself included, have wonderful goals—great aspirations in positive directions with the best of intentions.  But goals do not always translate into actions.  Businesses and organizations and churches can have noble goals, but until they discern the directions and decisions that will make these more manageable, those goals remain elusive.  Goals can make pretty pictures, but the lines are sometimes fuzzy. 

‘Projects’ is a way of talking about the goals that are broken into reasonable units.  If we want to move from X to Y by t, from here to there by then, then we need to plot the steps along the way.  We do not move through life by one enormous leap after another; progress is typically slower.  Breaking goals into projects is a healthy way to get focused on the next steps to be taken.  Projects make the picture clearer. 

Projects are made up of tasks.  Each portion of the project has certain tasks that have to be finished in sequence (usually) to bring about completion.  Tasks are something that are easy to handle.  I have time during the day to do many tasks—make a call, make a decision, read a chapter or article, write 1,000 words, send an email, respond to an email, offer a prayer.  It is the accumulation of all those tasks directed towards some end that moves life along.  Tasks may not require a ton of energy or effort, but steady completion of tasks takes me to new places that would not have been possible otherwise.  Tasks mount up over time.  I can see tasks completely in one day—not only focused, but also finished.    

Focusing on the right dimension—goal, project, task—with a reminder that progress takes steady effort has yielded many positive changes this year.  Focus has been the key.  The clearer I am able to see both the big picture, the intermediate markers, and the immediate tasks, the more effective and efficient I become.  Choosing the right lens brings clarity.  Focus is what brings it all into view.  

Danger at the DMV

On my birthday this year I had to go in to renew my driver’s license.  I was turning 60 and the state of Tennessee decided that I needed to check in physically rather than just mail it in.  An appearance was mandated.   

A trip to the DMV will reveal something about our character.  Do we face it with delight?  Not likely.  Do we face it with dread?  More common reaction.  But do we face it with fear?  Perhaps.

After one unsuccessful attempt, I had to make a return trip to the DMV—yet another chance to observe reactions to a common civic duty. 

This time things are going much smoother.  A few folks are sitting and waiting.  The staff is doing their best to be patient and provide the best of service.  They do not have an easy task by any means.  All those emotions that people bring in the door are put on display at the counters where the staff encounters a broad cross section of our culture.  It must take a tremendous amount of patience to handle such a task.  

At one point an elderly couple comes in.  He does not have much hair (look who’s talking, I actually had to put ‘bald’ on the form—that was a first!).  He seems to be following her directions as to where to sit.  He is a large man, but he seems a bit timid.  

She, on the other hand, does not have a hair out of place.  She obviously gets her hair done religiously.  It may not be a formal tenet of her professed faith, but it is an appointment that she obviously does not miss.  Maybe she has other elements of her life that are that controlled and predictable.  Her coiffure seems to display the kind of control and compulsion that she expects in life.  There does not appear to be much about her that has not been pressed through a tight filter.    She and her husband do not exchange much in the way of conversation.  

Shortly thereafter a young man comes in.  He is maybe in his thirties.  He is wearing a black toque that covers most of his dark hair which is long, full, and going in all directions.  His face is a bit scruffy as he has not shaved or trimmed anything in recent days.  He is dressed  casually and does not appear to be interested in engaging anyone in coversation.  Quietly he takes his number and his place in the waiting area with the rest of us.  

At this point I hear the woman with the perfect hair lean over to her husband and whisper, “This is a scary place.”  He nods his silent agreement.  She keeps an eye on the young man and his motions, even though he is doing nothing out of the ordinary.  

It struck me that she had not felt scared before this young man’s appearance.  What she was really saying but using other words was “that guy scares me.”  Why?  Why should she be scared?  

Because he is different?  Because he does not dress according to her standards?  Because his hair is a bit unruly?  Truth be told, I do not know the answer to that.  What is it that scares us about others?  These are not questions that had arisen in my mind until her statement.  

Maybe it is scary to have to interact, or even feel the threat that she would have to rub shoulders, with someone so different.  In her insulated little world such people do not typically make an appearance.  Her normal circles are closed too tightly to allow such intruders, which is the sense I got from her comment.  This young man would never darken the door of her salon; he would perhaps not feel welcomed in some of the spaces that make her comfortable.  Her sense of order and his sense of freedom clash to some degree.  She finds that scary enough to speak out about it.  Perhaps she feels that letting her husband know of her discomfort will put him on protective alert.  

The DMV is one of those dangerous places where our paths have to cross; it is a dangerous place in that we find ourselves in close proximity to those who are different from us.  There are not that many public spaces in our lives where we have to confront one another this way.  We have lots of little private spaces that we keep ‘neat and tidy’; we know who is there and we feel comfortable and confident in them.  But the DMV is just a foretaste of what we will experience when we are all out there together on the highways and byways we will all be driving.  A trip to the DMV might fill us with conflicting emotions.  Coming in to get a license is a way to be reminded that it is not just how we look on the license—it’s how we look at one another.  She found it ‘scary.’  He may have found it dull.  I find it intriguing.  

 

Time to Speak Up

I am the youngest of four children.  One of the advantages of being the youngest is that you already have older siblings ready to help take care of you.  As the youngest you get the chance to be both the object of affection and jealousy all at the same time; you get built-in baby sitters who watch your every move.  

Another feature, at least in my case, was that I did not have to say much.  As the story is related to me, I merely had to point and grunt and my older siblings would get whatever it was that I thought I wanted.  From my selfish perspective this was a good system.  Mind you, I did not realize all of this at the time.  After all, I was just a little kid.  

But it became obvious to my folks that this was not working.  Yes, my needs were met in short order, but they wondered if  my verbal development was being stunted.  So finally the word came down from my parents that no one was to get anything for me unless I asked for it by name.  I might have been three years old by this point in time, so certainly I could talk, but I had not had much need to do so.  

Suddenly it was as if the flood gates had opened.  I was talking up a storm.  I had plenty of vocabulary and knew how to put it to use.  I do not remember if this meant that I had to issue more orders in order to get what I wanted, or if I actually had to start getting up and on with life.  The point was that my vocal development had not been hampered—it had only seen reduced action.  I was plenty verbal when the circumstances demanded it.  

Fast forward a few decades.  I am in my college days and doing well.  I have a philosophy professor who thinks I speak and write well.  But he returns a paper to me with an emphatic comment—“Use more words.”  What I had written was fine, but it could have benefitted from a fuller exposition.  I might have expanded the paper with more examples.  I might have put more into it.  It was excellent—but terse. 

Fast forward a couple more decades and I am on a mission trip to Alaska.  I am in the process of getting to know some folks who had arrived as complete strangers.  We are learning about one another.  We are sharing stories of our lives.  At one point one of our team points out that I am “a man of few words, so it’s important to listen to the ones I say.”  It was genuine appreciation and I am thankful for it.  But there it is again—few words.  Guilty as charged.  

I have learned that I am an extreme introvert (We have the test scores to prove it!). There is always more going on inside of my head than I ever get out.  There are plenty of times when I have many things I could say, but I hold back waiting to see if it will truly add something to the conversation.  There are times when I could go on at length on certain subjects.  There are times when someone will ask my advice about matters and get several pages in reply.  

It is not that I have nothing to say, but that I do not always speak it or write it so that others might hear it.  The conversations in my head are ongoing.  I often have vigorous debates within myself.  

But having reached an age in which the odds are certain that I have less time here than I have had, I have decided that it is time to speak up.  It is time to let others hear what is going on inside.  Who knows whether it may have some value.  There are years’ worth of words that need to see the light of day; there are ideas that have been incubating for quite some time; there are things that I feel led to say now.  It has taken parental commands, and professorial encouragement, and friendly observation to get to this point.  But it is definitely time to speak up.  

Character in the Making

So what is your goal in life?  I’ve often said that my goal is to live long enough to become a character.  A character is one of those people who seems to stand out as an individual, often in some unusual or unique ways.  Characters are often a tad eccentric; they march to the beat of a different drum; they have their own perspectives on how and why the world works as it does.

I have known some characters in my life, and my guess is that you have too.  If you stop to think about it for even a few moments, then the characters will appear.

Some of them come from our families.  My grandfather Cecil was a character.  He lived to be one day shy of his 95th birthday.  He graduated from Oklahoma City Barber College in 1921.  He rode the rails at times during the depression.  He said that hair grew even when times were hard.  I asked him once what he thought was the secret to his long life; he looked at me calmly and said, ‘Two things—I keep regular habits, and I breathe deeply.’  That was it.  Yes, he was a man of regular habits.  He was also generous to a fault; he would try to give away a $100 to a stranger at the store when his Social Security checks came in because he was sure that he had to keep it all moving along or the flow would somehow stop.  He was a character in the finest sense of that word.

Some characters may be what is also known as ‘local color.’  These are folks who are particular to a certain town or city, and they may also be peculiar.  We had one growing up in the little town in the mountains where I was raised.  He walked everywhere and never drove to the best of my knowledge.  He always marched in parades in uniform, although we are not sure if he ever actually served; he would march waving a stick that was covered with streamers and buttons—definitely not military-issue.  Some said that he was a victim of shell-shock from WWII; others said he was ‘tetched.’  Whatever the backstory, once you met him you would not forget him.  Even if he never intended to do so, he offered some comic relief in our little burg.

Characters may reveal themselves to be heroic figures in the midst of everyday trials and tribulations.  There are those among us who are struggling and suffering along silently with burdens that we cannot imagine.  Their inner strength and conviction and resolve are not on public display except in rare moments.  When it finally comes to light we are inspired by their examples.

Some characters are made so by their own choices in life.  They choose the unexpected path, the flight of fancy, the dream of daring that others would avoid.  They do not ‘play it safe’ and thereby they end up in dangerous places where their character is formed in unique ways.  Like a tree that has stood atop the mountain and weathered many a storm that left it somewhat broken, perhaps deformed, missing some limbs that would have given it more balance and beauty, these folks are shaped by forces that have left a mark.

I think I originally said that my goal was to be a character because I had heard so many folk talk about being this or being that or reaching some level of income and or retiring safely with enough money to keep them comfortable until they exit this existence.  It was, at least, something different, something that made people wonder what was going on within me, something that made some people laugh.  I have not put it down on a resume yet, but that may still happen.  Who knows?

I am a unique mixture of the people I have known, the experiences I have had, the education I have received, the places I have traveled, the books I have read, the genes I have inherited, and everything else along the way.  I have learned a few things.  I have seen some things.  I have some stories that are worth passing along.  I have some insights that might prove useful to others.  So what you find here might touch on a number of things.

But I am still a character in the making.  I do not assert that I have reached my goal yet. There are still events and education and employment and enjoyment that will all shape who I am still becoming.  My hope is that sharing this journey will help you, gentle reader, as you make your own way in this world.