The Journey series
This week’s Mustard Seed carries on with the wealth of experience I gained from my late 1970`s European tour. I firmly believe our teens, our countries, and our society would be better served if the senior year of high school was spent abroad.
Short, packaged tours don`t expose people quite the same way. Vacationers tend to bring their own culture along with them. In LeHavre, France I got stuck behind two rather slow obvious tourists. I overheard one remark to her companion, “Aren't these children clever. They all speak foreign languages.” They were, of course, speaking French.
In Athens, a woman dressed in black high-heeled shoes, a polyester dress with large purple polka dots, and a wide-brimmed straw hat bound with a navy ribbon waddled along ahead of me down the stone path leading from the Acropolis. I overheard her Brooklyn accent declare, “I don’t like it here. Everything is broken. All you see is ruins, ruins, ruins.”
I myself, despite travelling away from home for several days, didn’t appreciate how far away I was until crossing the Firth of Forth as I drove to St Andrews, Scotland. This is that place in the atlas! It was no longer just an amusing name on a map. And I was there.
In Germany I gained an appreciation of history. We happened upon a mill house on the 500th anniversary of the date etched into the stone dedication plaque above its door. This place is old! Nothing I`d encountered in North America put me in such awe of time. Columbus hadn`t even set sail for America when that building was erected.
I experienced the divine and mystical in cathedrals I visited throughout Europe. I was brought up attending one of the oldest and grandest churches in Vancouver but I suppose there hadn’t yet been enough prayers prayed there to impart the holiness I sensed in those grand structures. There I sensed an inexplicable serenity and comfort.
We kept heading east. A few weeks after arriving in Iran my sister’s appetite for adventure wore thin, as did our wallets. She travelled home with what money we had left and I found a job teaching English to replenish my pockets.
I rented a house with four fellow expat teachers. Two of my room mates preferred drinking beer and two preferred reading. I was alone in wanting to meet the locals. I learned enough Farsi to greet people, thank them, and shop for groceries. On weekends I ventured in different directions as far as time allowed.
One weekend I stumbled across a small village where each family lived in a one-roomed house built of mud bricks. Each also had half an acre to grow rice. They all greeted me with great enthusiasm. The men guided me to the home of a man who also owned two bee hives. Each hive produced five kilograms of honey twice a year. This made his family wealthy! The owner showed me his bees. He smoked the hive and very gently moved the bees about, petting them and holding them out for me to observe more closely. He retrieved a frame of honey and broke off a small piece for me to try. Other men showed up bearing trays of different foods. We sat, ate and drank tea. They smiled and chatted. Everyone was very happy. In that village I experienced simplicity.
Sending our teens to such places for a year would serve them better than buying them the latest smartphone or laptop. No amount of study with the best of technology can match experience. Living without the amenities, conveniences, and comfort of home would help them appreciate, respect, and live better with them. I know our trip made my sister and me better people.
Next week: More Wealth.
This week’s Mustard Seed revisits the awe of my transatlantic voyage. There is great value in knowing just how insignificant each of us is, indeed, all of us are.
Upon return from my California college experience I found a job as a commercial SCUBA diver during the aptly-referred Wild West period of the profession. There weren’t any regulations and anyone with a C-card and enough bravado could try their hand. It was a very glamourous position — off hours. In truth, it’s just a more demanding, difficult, and dangerous version of equivalent dry land work.
The hard work kept me in top physical form and the pay was good. I got a lot of attention at the local pub with my tight fitting Fraser Burrard Diving T-shirt.
Much of our work was scheduled but emergency maintenance and salvage job occurred frequently. We took turns being on-call which meant carrying a pager, keeping our gear in our van, and not drinking. If something broke or something sank we needed to respond immediately.
Every long weekend, instead of being three days to enjoy, meant two twelve-hour shifts out of town performing maintenance in the toxic environment under a pulp mill. We’d load our equipment and travel on Friday, work Saturday and Sunday, and return exhausted on Monday.
During that time my younger sister planned a trip to Europe with a friend. Circumstances changed that friend’s mind but my sister decided to press on alone. I wasn’t comfortable with my fresh-out-of-high-school sister travelling alone in Europe.
In reasonably quick succession I had two equipment failures. They accentuated the danger of my work and caused me to reflect. How long would I like being a commercial diver? Perhaps there was good reason most of my fellow divers were young and single. I enjoyed the high salary and the esteem but not so much the job itself. I decided to quit before I got too comfortable to ever leave. I arranged to accompany my sister to Europe. We set out for New York by bus and from there to England by a Russian passenger freighter.
Four days at sea, nothing to see in any direct but ocean and sky, I felt small. That night I walked the decks and contemplated. I looked up at the myriad stars, each one so much larger than Earth; in turn, much larger than the ocean we’d been lost in for days.
Next week: More Wealth.
I look up at your heavens, shaped by your fingers, at the moon and the stars you set firm. What are human beings that you spare a thought for them, or the child of Adam that you care for him? Yet you have made him little less than a god, you have crowned him with glory and beauty.
This week’s Mustard Seed revisits the existential angst of my late teens. My father left when I was five years old. I often felt he would have been able to answer some of my deeper questions had he been around. After graduating from high school I decided I needed to know him so I went to visit him in California.
During my two week stay he suggested I attended college there and invited me to stay with him and his wife. Wanting to know him better, I accepted. I arrived in Fremont the following July. Within a few weeks my father accepted a new job. He and his wife moved to New Jersey late that August.
Since I was already enrolled at Ohlone College I stayed. I studied and met new friends. All went well enough at first but during the Christmas break I found myself all alone. I had no family within a thousand miles and my friends were all busy with their families.
I began to wonder why I was, why anything is. I sought the answer in religions, sciences, and philosophies. The one common thread I found was, “As ye sow, so shall ye reap.” Everywhere — axiom of equality, second law of thermodynamics, stoichiometry, karma, an eye for an eye — even the Hells Angels say, “What goes around comes around.” I decided since so many others figured it was true I would accept it also. I worked it backwards to the first action. What caused that? I did the same with conservation of matter and energy. Where did it come from in the first place? Has everything always been there?
I thought about time. It’s finite. No matter what size blocks it's cut into, there must be a beginning for there to be a now, something to stack all those blocks on to get to the present. If there’s a beginning, there must be something greater than all time, space, matter, and energy that caused it to be.
I only found two propositions, the big bang or God. I reasoned that the big bang was an event not a cause. That left only God.
I still didn’t have any family or friends with me, but I now knew I had God. He made up for all that was missing.
Next week: More Wealth.
Our society tends to view wealth as material possessions. The next few Mustard Seeds will argue through anecdotes that real wealth lies in faith, hope, love, truth, beauty, goodness, and community. Material wealth is merely a tool. If we rely on wealth to bring us happiness we become its slave. When we focus on things we lose sight of true wealth.
I grew up one of five children of a single mom. Needless to say, we didn’t have many things. Yet we were happy. The sun came up, the flowers bloomed, and the birds sang. We could go out to play and explore safely.
I enjoyed school and learning. As long as one of us had a peewee football, dozens of us could fill our mornings, recesses, and lunch with joy. After school my friend and I could hoist anchor and set sail in a cardboard box. One day we’d be pirates, the next we’d cast our nets and catch a thousand fish.
One summer I found a block of wood by a construction site. I added boards and nails I rescued from a discarded wooden apple crate and built a Safeway store with rooftop parking. I painted the walls Safeway pink and applied black-paint asphalt paving to the ramp and roof. The white paint turned a little greyer with each parking stall I lined out. I fashioned bits of wood into cars of the proper scale, retooling my assembly line to produce station wagons once I figured out they were easier to carve than sedans. I turned a larger block into a delivery truck. I designated a police car and an ambulance, though only I was able to distinguish them from the other vehicles. The wheel-less blocks didn’t fire across the floor as impressively or predictably as Hot Wheels, but I still preferred my vehicles. The less imagination one uses, the less they’ll have, and there’s no accomplishment in Hot Wheels.
In my childhood I didn’t know what I didn’t have. I had plenty without having much. Clearly, it wasn’t things that kept me happy. I never missed things until I learned they were. Today we’ve lost that innocence. Today we need many things that, not long ago, existed only in science fiction.
Next week: Still Wealth.
This week’s Mustard Seed examines wealth. The last post of October explained ownership as the right to keep, use, or trade, the fruits of our efforts. Our wealth is a net tally of what we own.
We generate wealth by applying our efforts to change the location or the form of assets. To earn more wealth we can work more efficiently, more effectively, or just more. Wealth may be redistributed through trade but trade doesn’t create wealth.
Wealth diminishes by consumption. We must eat, clothe ourselves, and have shelter to exist. Beyond that we may choose to consume to facilitate production and distribution or for personal and social development, entertainment, or luxury. In our society, when considering wealth, we may think of Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Bill Gates, or Richard Branson. In personal terms we think of our house, our bank account, and our investments. We tend to focus on individuals and economy. We can’t exist as individuals. We must live in families, communities, and an environment. Value isn’t to be measured only in dollars and cents. We mustn’t lose sight of the vast wealth in our faith, our families, our neighbours, our environment, our language, our arts, or our science.
Wealth generated by the community should first ensure all members of the community survive and then allow them to flourish. If production cannot meet the minimum needs of the community, expenditures to improve efficiency and effectiveness are necessary; after that, investments in the economy must be weighed against emotional, aesthetic, and spiritual benefits. It is prudent to maintain a reserve of wealth for contingencies, but wealth spent to increase wealth with no other goal does not serve anyone.
Conspicuous consumption in the face of poverty invites contempt and despair. A community where wealth is held in excess by few while others lack necessities is destined for strife.
Next week: More Wealth.
Peter T Elliott