The Journey series
In last week's Mustard Seed I claimed anyone who says you can be whatever you want to be is lying. I laid out how what we are is largely determined by nature and nurture long before we are even aware we must choose. So what's with this week's topic?
There are limits on what we can be. There are no limits on what we can want. If we set our goals beyond the limits of what we can be, we will not succeed. We can only be what we want to be if we want to be what we can be.
I'm reminded of a time I ran the cabinet shop for a large construction company. The owner asked if I had enough leftover wood in the shop to make a boardroom table. I told him I did. a few days later he came with a plan for a nine-foot by four-foot boardroom table. It had a walnut parquet top framed in maple with maple legs and skirt. He told me to build it. I said I didn't have the materials. He became irate. "You told me there was enough wood to build a boardroom table!"
"A table – yes," I replied calmly. "That table – no."
He stormed off demanding the table he designed be built from the materials on hand by the time he returned from his trip.
I had seventeen days. I looked at his plan, I looked at the boardroom, and I took stock of my materials. I had nine-foot oak boards but no maple boards longer than six feet. Oak wouldn't match the maple cabinets in the board room. Joints in straight nine-foot lengths would be unacceptable. I changed the shape from rectangle to elongated hexagon so no side would exceed the length of the boards I had. The ends were slightly narrower than Hans' design and the middle was wider.
When Hans returned he reluctantly admitted the table I built was better than the one he designed. He particularly noted that the angled long edges afforded better site lines between the participants.
Adhering to Hans' original plan would have doomed the project to failure. It would either not have been built or it would have been built in a way Hans would reject. He would not have his table and I would be out the door. Instead, I assessed the projects needs and limits. I modified the design to suit its functional, structural, and aesthetic requirements while fitting within the limits of materials I had on hand. Adhering to the limits even incurred a providential benefit.
The same principles apply to what we want to be. If we stubbornly cling to our original inclinations even though they are beyond our limits, we will fail. If we separate our needs from our wants and develop a plan which lies within our limits, we can succeed. If our plan hits a new limit we need a new plan.
God created each of us according to His plan. Limits are not accidents, they are guideposts. We will be happiest when we want to be what we are created to be. What we should be is better discerned than decided.
Next week: Cost/Benefit Analysis
This week's Mustard Seed begins a look at who we are. You can be whatever you want to be is commonly promised to motivate people. It is not true.
For the first nine months of our existence we don't have a capacity to want. We reside inside our mother. Her choice of partner, activities and diet, affects what we will be. Her circumstances and environment impact our development. Her health and emotional state determine which hormones run through us.
As infants, we still do not want anything, rather, we do not want distress. We cry in reaction to uncomfortable sensations. Our caregivers then assess whether our distress is due to hunger, gas, poopy diapers, or something else and determine what we need. We have not learned to want. We can achieve nothing for our self.
It is not until well after we leave our mother's womb that we learn to want. We must first experience our environment and form associations. We must learn to control our motor functions. We must learn that if we push our spoon over the edge of our high chair it will drop to the floor and Mommy will come to pick it up. We must learn that if we mimic certain sounds Mommy and Daddy will smile at us and cheer. We must learn permanence, consistence, and cause and effect. But we still won't want to be anything.
It takes several more years for us to learn that our communities operate by people contributing in various capacities. We learn that, to remain in a community, we are expected to contribute in some way. Only then are we able to imagine what type of contribution we might offer. By the time we face that decision we bear many physical, mental, emotional, psychological, and sociological traits, unchosen by us, that constrain our choices.
Some restrictions can be overcome by effort, others can't. A favorite maxim of the basketball coach at my sons' high school was You can't teach tall. No amount of desire or effort will prevail in a five-foot-two college student's struggle to captain the LA Lakers. Desires that lie too far outside what we are by nature, nurture, or circumstance are delusional.
Some restriction reside not in the nature of the self, but in the nature of the role. Every four years many people strive to become the president of the United States. Only two wind up on the ballot and only one is elected. Who becomes president depends not on what the candidates want, but on what the voters want.
Circumstance often trumps desire. Many are thrust into or denied roles by unforeseen events. Years of effort may be thwarted by chance encounters with fate. Sometimes we find our self doing what must be done not because we want to, but because we are there when it needs to be done. Acts of nature or the deeds of others often prevent us from being whatever we want to be.
The multiplicity of roles we must play further complicates our quest to be whatever we want to be. We must satisfy many roles – there are even roles within roles. Husband, father, provider, mentor, friend, and neighbour. All are worthy goals and each takes precedence according to time and circumstance. We cannot be all things at all times. We must juggle our efforts in response to the vagaries of our environment more often than than according to or desires.
It may seem a pleasant platitude, but being whatever we want to be is not attainable. Those who chase that dream find it's a moving target. As we approach our wants, they move on to become bigger and grander – and farther away. Always just beyond our grasp.
Next week: How to Be What We Want to Be.
This week's Mustard Seed wraps up the series about my European and Mideast adventure in the late seventies.
Safely aboard my Skytrain flight, I was eight hours from New York. From there, I would be twenty-four hundred miles and who knew how many hours from Vancouver. Worry would resolve nothing, there was no entertainment on this bare-bones flight, and the food I had needed to last several days, so I slept.
But I didn't sleep long enough – I woke up hungry and, despite willing not to, ate my remaining food. I landed at JFK still hungry. After passing through Customs, I went to the tourist bureau in search of a means home. As luck would have it (I was still wary of providence), that was the last day of Amtrak's Ninety-Nine Dollar Ticket To Anywhere Sale.
After paying for the shuttle to Grand Central Station, I had exactly one hundred dollars when I arrived at the Amtrak ticket counter. That day's train had already left but, as long as I paid on that day, a ninety-nine dollar ticket would get me to Vancouver. The next train left at nine the next morning.
My dollar and I wandered about, able to visit only the parts of New York within walking distance and only from the outside. Late that evening a man approached me. We chatted. I didn't learn much about him, but he patiently allowed me to vent much of the stress that had built up through my travails. Just before ten, I found he had subtly led me to the YMCA hostel. He paid the clerk twenty-five dollars for me to bunk there over night. He wished me a safe trip home, said good night, and left.
I woke much more relaxed the next day. As I made my way back to Grand Central Station, I found a diner that offered a ninety-nine-cent breakfast before seven a.m. It was six-fifty-five. Two eggs over easy, bacon, toast, hash browns, and coffee. I lingered over that breakfast as long as I could, knowing it would be my last meal until I arrived in Vancouver three and a half days later. Too many cups of coffee later I made my way to Grand Central just as they announced the platform for my train.
As I approached the platform, a tourist headed the other direction handed me a Robert Ludlum novel. "Here, I've finished it," he said, "Maybe you'll enjoy it."
I thanked him more than I could express. The next three days would pass faster with entertainment. Reading would also offer a needed distraction from the hunger headed my way. I rationed the pages to ensure the book would last the full trip. On the second day a young woman sat across from me. "Where are you in the book?" she asked.
She had just finished reading it. We discussed the book for a bit and mused about its premise – up to the point that avoided spoilers. We then chatted about each other's trips. Jill had been visiting a friend in Chicago and was heading back to Portland, Oregon. When she learned of my plight she invited me to dinner in the dining car. I promised to repay her once I accessed my money in Vancouver. "No," she insisted. "Come visit me in Portland and you can buy me dinner."
I agreed and she gave me the number of a friend through whom I would be able to contact her. She had a chef's salad and I had a Salisbury steak. We shared a bottle of wine. After dinner we returned to our seats and continued our conversation. I'm not sure which of us fell asleep first. I declined her invitation to breakfast the next morning. She returned shortly before noon and not long before Seattle where she changed trains to head south and I remained aboard to head north.
I arrived in Vancouver shortly after ten p.m. With only one penny, I couldn't afford to call anyone or take a bus so I walked three miles to my mother's house. A block before arriving, my cat ran up and jumped up to ride my shoulders the rest of the way. I approached to my mother's barking dog. My mother and one of my sisters were surprised and excited to see me. No one expected me back for at least a year. My mom made tea and we had a bit of a celebration which woke my youngest sister.
She poked her head into the living room. "What are you doing here?" she asked, squinting her eyes against the light.
"Well don't make so much noise. I'm trying to sleep." She headed back to her room.
The next morning I retrieved my car from the friend I'd lent it to, went to the bank to withdraw some cash, and reclaimed the room I had been renting before I left for my journey. I called up my previous employer who was anxious for me to start working there again immediately. We were so busy that I wasn't able to go to Portland to meet my obligation to Jill for over a month.
When I finally did arrive in Portland I called the number Jill had written down for me. Jill happened to be visiting that friend when I called. Jill said she'd love to get together with me for dinner but she had a previous commitment with another friend. "How about tomorrow?" I asked.
"No," she insisted, "he won't mind if you tag along."
She told me where to meet her and when. She had herbal tea and biscuits waiting for me when I arrived. She showed me the hanging baskets she'd made to sell at the local flea market and we discussed our activities since parting. Time flew by and before Jill was ready her friend knocked on the door. She opened it.
"Hello, Kerry," I said to everyone's amazement.
Kerry and I had been on the same Magic Bus trip from Athens to London. I didn't know Kerry lived in Portland. As far as I know, Kerry and Jill were the only two people I knew who lived in Portland. I'd been half way around the world and back only to find out just how small the world truly is.
Next week: We'll See.
This week's Mustard Seed begins in Athens. I had a ticket and a three-day wait for the Magic bus that would take me to London. I also had just over two hundred US dollars. I knew Freddy Laker's Skytrain would get me from London to New York for ninety-nine of those dollars. I could only trust God that the balance of my funds would see me from New York to Vancouver and cover any essential incidentals.
I must admit my trust in God arose more through necessity than faith. Not wishing to strain God too greatly, I decided to eschew restaurants and hostels. The more money I had in my pocket when I reached New York, the better God's chance of getting me home. My faith was not getting any stronger as I wandered the streets of Athens that evening.
As it grew darker and colder, I noticed an orange flickering glow in the distance. As I approached, I saw it rose from an oil drum. Several men stood about it. I waved at them as I approached. "Kalispera," I said.
"What do you want?" they responded.
"May I share your fire?"
They shuffled over to make room for me. I gleaned from snippets of English that they were unemployed seamen. A bit later on I heard "Abdul," "Lebanon," and "radio officer."
"Are you speaking of Abdul whose friend died in Lebanon?" I asked.
It turned out they were. They all knew Abdul. When they found out I was the one who helped him travel from Istanbul to Athens the whole conversation switched to English. It turned out there was quite a community of homeless African sailors in Athens. I was invited to stay with these men in their cave until my Magic Bus departure. There was plenty of fruit, vegetables, and salted fish to share. Men came and went as ships arrived and departed. My second visit to Athens was much different from my first. The circumstances were much better for the first, but the people were far better in the second.
At the appointed time, I rendezvoused with the Magic Bus, presented my scrap-of-paper ticket, and boarded. I put my bag in the overhead rack and sat. A girl a little older than me arrived a little later and asked to sit beside me. She was so loaded down with bags that she obviously needed help. As I was busy hoisting her backpack and satchel into the overhead rack she snuck into the window seat. She tucked one shopping bag under her seat and another between her feet. I didn't think it fair, but I wasn't about to start our three-and-a-half day journey with a spat.
I soon learned that she was returning to London from a visit with her mother who had retired in Greece for the better weather and lower cost of living. Liz was a regular round-trip passenger on the Magic Bus. The two bags stowed by her feet were full of sandwiches and pastries. We got out to stretch our legs and mingle with the other passengers whenever the drivers stopped, and her two sacks contained more than enough to feed us both for the whole trip. Liz fed and entertained me the entire way. She also provided detailed instructions to get to Gatwick airport from where the Magic Bus dropped us off, and tips for catching the Skytrain to New York.
Liz handed me a parcel of food as we said goodbye. I boarded the bus to Victoria Station where I would catch the Gatwick Express train. Once at the airport I rushed over to line up for my Skytrain ticket. Even though the booth wouldn't open for hours, the line was already long. Without Liz's warning I would have arrived later to a sold out flight.
Once I safely had my ticket I relaxed enough that I could sit and think. I realized I had been so busy following my plan to get to New York that I hadn't worried about the New York to Vancouver leg of my return home. Past New York I had no plan – and, pre-internet, no means of finding the information I needed to make any plan. I decided worrying wouldn't help – I'd just leave that part up to God. It was only then that I began to recognize how great a role God's providence had played in my journey ever since I fled Iran.
Next week: North America.
This week's Mustard Seed sees me reach Athens.
I felt back on familiar ground in Istanbul. My sister and I spent several days there during our eastbound journey. I headed toward the minarets of Hagia Sophia. They led me to the Lale Restaurant and Sammy, the waiter we befriended.
Istanbul straddles the European-Asian boundary. It's the funnel that converges travellers in both directions. Lale Restaurant was an essential stop for both the backpack crowd heading east and the carpetbag veterans returning. English was the prevalent language.
I marveled again at the difference between the two groups. Slacks, polos, and insecurity versus loose cotton clothes, matted hair, and henna tattoos. I hadn't been all the way to India and my experiences were far from any Beatles' Nirvana, but my time in Asia left its own indelible impression. This time, instead of being an east-bound backpacker who found those others strange, I found both groups foreign.
As I sat sipping my Turkish coffee I was approached by a Sudanese gentleman. Abdul introduced himself and explained he was a ship's radio officer. During a recent stop in Beirut his friend had been shot and taken to a hospital. He stayed behind to help his friend who eventually died. Abdul spent all his money on his friend's hospital bill and was now desperate to get to Athens where he could catch another ship. He suggested that, if I loaned him seventy-five dollars for the ticket, we could catch a bus that evening. Once in Athens, he would go to the shipping company he worked for, get an advance, and repay me. He promised that if I would help him he would say many prayers for me for the rest of his life.
Despite Sammy's warning, I felt Abdul was sincere. I agreed to meet him back at Lale Restaurant at seven-thirty. We met, had a quick coffee, and left for the Beyazit bus depot. I bought two tickets and we boarded the bus to Athens. A young American backpacker arrived a few moments later and sat in a seat ahead of us. He very obviously hadn't bathed recently. Abdul and I moved two rows back. As the bus filled, the seat beside the American remained empty. The bus filled to capacity. The last passenger to board paused looking at the empty seat and the man beside it. He huffed, closed his eyes, and then squeezed himself in between five others in the very back. The bench was clearly not built for six men, but none of the occupants moved to the only empty seat on the bus.
About three hours later we approached the Greek border. Abdul asked me to let him hold my money. He explained that he would have to show that he had money or he would be turned back at the border. "What about me?" I asked. "Won't I need to show money?"
Trepidatiously, I let him hold my money. The customs agent boarded the bus and asked to see our passports. He stamped them as he went by with nothing more than a quick glance at our faces. He had no questions for any white people – not even the smelly young American. Surely enough, my friend and the two other coloured people on board were led off the bus for further questioning. When they came back Abdul returned my money and thanked me. He said without that money he definitely would have been denied entry. He also told me that, during the course of their interrogation, he learned the fellow detainee sitting five rows ahead of us was a doctor from India and the one across the aisle and two seats behind was an engineer from America.
About nine hours later we arrived at Station Kifisou in Athens. Abdul would go to his shipping office and I would find accommodations. We agreed to meet at Athena's gate at one o'clock. Abdul headed off and I headed to the tourist brochure rack. I discovered there were several budget hotels near Athena's gate so off I went. The first two hotels I tried had no rooms available. The third was Sammy's Place, owned by an American veteran. I paid for a room for two which would be available for check-in after four o'clock. Task accomplished, I took a leisurely stroll to Athena's gate.
Abdul was not there by one. By one-twenty I began to worry. By one-thirty I was down right anxious – seventy-five dollars was a huge amount of money in my situation. Abdul did not arrive until two. He apologized and explained that he would sail the next day and had needed to meet the ship's captain. Abdul repaid his loan and treated me to lunch at a nearby café. We sat and chatted until four before heading to Sammy's Place.
When we arrived Sammy took one look at Abdul and announced, "He can't stay here."
"Why not?" I asked.
"You're black!" I replied.
"I'm the owner," Sammy explained. "If I let him stay here all my guest will leave."
Neither reason nor protest could dissuade Sammy. He refunded our money and we set off to find a more accommodating accommodation. Eventually we found a small pension run by a seventy-five year old French woman who preferred the Greek climate. The next morning I checked out of the pension as I knew I needed to preserve my funds. Abdul apologized that he didn't get enough of an advance to give me any money. He accompanied me to the youth hostel before we said our farewells. I couldn't afford to stay there either, but I was sure someone there would know of cheap transportation toward London.
Inside the hostel I found a notice on the bulletin board about the Magic Bus – fifty US dollars, Athens to London non-stop. I jotted down the address. I found 24 Kidathineon Street but it didn't seem to be the Magic Bus office. After searching about the building I found a Magic Bus poster taped to a door. It had a felt-pen arrow pointing up drawn on it. I opened the door to expose a very steep set of stairs. I tried the doors at each level as I climbed only to find them locked. After four stories of creaky stairs, I saw another Magic Bus poster on the door. I entered, and after a brief discussion handed over fifty dollars to a clerk. The man at the desk wrote my name on a list and handed me a little slip of paper. He told me where and when to find the bus. I had only to survive three days in Athens without spending any money and I'd be on my way.
Next week: Magic!