Monday, March 05, 2007

The Day My Life Changed

I am a different person than I was two years ago. No really, I am. Sure, everyone grows and changes and matures, but I am fundamentally different – to the point where I have done a lot of soul-searching. It’s not that I have just grown – the whole trajectory of my life has changed. And it’s not just because we now have our own child and I am a father. Things I used to be “hardcore” about have no effect on me anymore. It’s not that I want to take the other side now – it’s that I don’t want to argue at all. I don’t feel like I have to be right. I feel more compassion. I have more tolerance and understanding for people who do wrong. I don’t get angry in the way I used to. I feel less selfish and materialistic. My priorities are different. On and on I could go. Now before you think I ought to get on Oprah, I want you to consider something: I believe that when someone’s life changes fundamentally, they ought to be able to know themselves well enough to pinpoint the moment it all changed. I call these “hinge moments.” To quote Ruel Lemmons: “The greatest forces of all time do not come with powerful explosions or the noise of racing chariots; they come on silent wings. The power of love is such a force. And grace and goodness make little racket.” I have thought about this, and I keep going back to the same place. Here is one of my journal entries from our last trip to Zambia:

“Tuesday, June 28th, 2005: Today we drove to the Chadiza district on what may or may not have been a road to do two medical clinics - one in Chadiza, and one in a little village called Kabvuwa right on the Mozambique border. James and I rode point with Wellington, but we still managed to get lost getting there, so we showed up fairly late in the afternoon. Being lost on the Mozambique border is not good! Trust me on this. You cannot imagine a poorer or more remote place on earth. The villagers had been waiting for hours, but when they saw our van kicking up dust on the road, they got up, and welcomed us with joyful singing. And then we got to work. I preached (arduously, through a translator), we gave out pills, we cleaned sores and burns, and we pulled lots of teeth. As the sun started to set we worked frantically to help as many people as possible – even pulling teeth in the dark with only one small flashlight. With my preaching duties done for the day I decided to help Laurie with wound care. A young girl, maybe 9 or 10 years old, wearing a bright blue shirt came to us with a severe infection in her eyes. They were swollen, and full of puss. With water and cotton swabs we cleaned out her eyes. The poor girl was clearly in severe pain. But when I looked her in the face, and we made eye contact she flashed me a beaming smile like I had never seen before. It was a look of relief and gratitude and true happiness. In the poorest, most remote spot I have ever been to a little girl showed me true happiness. The emotion of the moment flooded over me, and I couldn't hold back the tears. I had to sneak around the corner and sit in the van for a few minutes so the rest of the team wouldn't see me not smiling. They don’t know that the constant smile is a mask I wear for their benefit. I am heartbroken. I'll never know that little girl's name, I’ll never see her again, but she’s why we keep coming back to Zambia.”

After that trip I split off from the group and went down to my hometown in South Africa for 5 days. I sat on the beach one morning, all alone, and cried! About what? About everything! Every failure I’ve ever had, every mean thing I’ve ever said, every argument I’ve ever won because I know big words, every person I’ve ever disappointed, every bad decision I’ve ever made, every good thing I’ve ever lost, every callous thought I’ve ever had. And much more. I came home cleansed, and with fundamentally altered priorities and motivations. It was a rebirth.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

My Son - One Degree Removed

Our son, William Riley North, was born in Abilene, Texas on February 22nd, 2007. I was born in Port Elizabeth, South Africa in 1974. My father was born in Port Elizabeth, South Africa in 1952. No, this isn’t simple genealogy. At no other time in human history has so much change happened in two generations. The world that my father was born into does not exist anymore. 1952 may as well be 500 years ago as far as my son is concerned. In two generations everything has changed - culture, technology, politics, communication, travel, and religion. But here’s the big thing that I’ve really thought about lately. My son was born an American. That may not be a big deal for most of you, but it is for me. I was not born an American. I spent years of my life dreaming about going to America. I went through many hoops to become an American. I only became an American on February 22nd, 2005 – at age 31. This is really a big deal for me! My son’s formative experiences will be radically different from mine in so many ways. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far.

My son will not know Port Elizabeth, South Africa. This is my hometown. This is where I was born, where my father was born, where his father was born. In fact, my family has lived in Port Elizabeth since 1820. We settled in Port Elizabeth with the earliest British settlers. My great-grandmother’s grandparents (Benjamin and Ann Leach) arrived in Port Elizabeth on Monday, May 15, 1820 on board HMS Weymouth from Portsmouth, England. My son will not have that rich family heritage in terms of a “hometown.” I will take him to Port Elizabeth someday and show him where I grew up.

My son will not know his relatives in South Africa as I know them. People I love dearly and grew up with will be complete strangers to him.

My son will not grow up speaking two languages fluently – English and Afrikaans (Dutch) as I did. It’s hard to explain what it’s like to live in two very different worlds, and feel comfortable in both.

My son will not know or appreciate the heritage of a British colonial education – the School Houses, the discipline, prefects, and uniforms.

My son will not understand rugby and cricket. He’ll play football and baseball.

My son will not know the comforting smell and sound of the ocean. People laugh at me when I say, “The Sea is in my blood.” But it’s true!

My son will not know the sights and smells of Africa. Africa is a world of enchantment that cannot be explained to someone who has never gone there.

My son will not have the stigma of apartheid as I had growing up. When I was a kid white people were only 13% of the population, but we had all the power, and the rest of the world hated us.

My son will think it odd to drive on the left side of the road. I used to find it odd to drive on the right side of the road.

Can you think of anything else?