Physics teacher and swimming coach Mark Hammond delivered this Wednesday night Chapel Talk on January 30, 2019.
I'm going to talk tonight about some things that I learned while on sabbatical. Because I set out to learn about making cheese, and this led me to learn about raising goats, and starting up artisanal food businesses, you might be expecting something like that. But, as is so often the case, the most important and interesting things I learned from my experiences were not necessarily the things I set out to learn. Similarly, some of my plans for the sabbatical (maybe the majority of them) did not work out, yet it was the unplanned, spontaneous experiences made possible by my unsuccessful planning that formed the most interesting and memorable parts of my sabbatical.
So, first let me give you a broad-brush travel log of my sabbatical with Noreen:
Sabbatical was sandwiched between two summers at Appalachian State University in North Carolina, where I had fun doing chemistry and biology in the Fermentation Science Department.
A year ago last fall, we undertook the classic American road trip: driving across the continent with the truckers and the kickers and the cowboy angels; visiting friends, former colleagues, and family; and hiking when we could.
Then, in late October, we went to Europe, worked in a refugee camp in Greece, spent January and April working on a British farm raising goats, making goat cheese, and working in the farm's pub, February we were on the Spanish island of Mallorca to help a couple who were starting a brewery, then spent a month in Morocco.
In between and around all that we visited friends and family in Germany, France, Belgium, England.
What sticks with me most about all this travel is not that Ryan Air is rough, or that Hall and Oates really need to stay out of my life, but rather it was the people I got to know for the first time.
The residents of the refugee camp and the volunteers we worked with,
the people who lived and worked on the farm in Britain,
the couple we stayed with and worked with on Mallorca,
the expat brewers I got to know in Berlin.
I was initially struck by the fact I was meeting so many artisans. In the refugee camp, there were several thriving businesses: chefs making food, carpenters building shelters, a store keeper with a tiny general store store. On the farm in Britain, Tony, the farmer and pub's chef; Nolwenn, the 25-year-old French genius behind the goat cheese operation; Sue, Tony's wife, who owned a hair studio and marketed the goat cheese; and Jackie, who produced the farm's chutneys, cheese spreads and jams—they were all artisans. Sven, the owner of the brewery in Mallorca, had been a globe-trotting nurse, a Berlin punk rocker, a punk and metal recording producer, and, eventually, a brewer.
But my mind kept returning to one particular person in the refugee camp whom I had not gotten to know at all. She was a single mother of six (ages 3 to 13), a Palestinian woman fleeing war, seeking a stable, safe life for her children. What stood out was what a disaster she was... she was failing. She would steal clothes from the NGO I was working with (the clothes were free, but there was an orderly system of "credits" and "store hours" residents followed to give them a feel of normalcy and control). Then she would barter the stolen clothes for other clothes. All the while, the weather was getting colder and colder, and her youngest children had no shoes or coats. A concerted effort was made to bring her into the store and make sure her children had these essentials. She was still reacting to trauma that had passed—the dangerous and frightening journey to Greece. She could not process her current situation, and she couldn't change to fit this new situation. At first, I was aghast at how ineffective she was, but the more time I spent at the camp, the more I began to wonder how there weren't more people just as traumatized as she was. It was truly remarkable how resilient most of the residents of the camp were. Yet everyone treated the Palestinian woman kindly, understanding that her irrational behavior was not intentional. She was simply broken, badly broken.
Apparently at the other end of the spectrum was an extremely self-confident man, a tough Algerian man who wore his skin like iron and had breath that was hard as kerosene. He was unusual in that he had tattoos on his neck, not typical of the population in the camp. We were all fairly sure that he had been involved with organized crime in Algeria. He wasn't fleeing war; there is no war in Algeria, so he was most likely fleeing his past. He scared people with his attitude, and he took an instant dislike to me when, upon our first meeting, I enforced some rule—which I'd been asked to enforce by our organization—that denied him what he wanted at that moment. About a week later, he got caught in the middle of what I called "the bottle kids." If you know the Canadian sitcom Trailer Park Boys then you know what I mean. If not, think of the kindergartners in the American cartoon Recess. If none of that helps, I'll break it down for you: This was a group of 4-to-7 year-olds who ran around the camp together, and they terrorized people wherever they went. They were all sweet little kids when you got them on their own, but together, they turned into a mischievous mob. My first encounter with them was when they snuck inside the warehouse where we stored donated clothing. It took five grown men half an hour to get them out. Later that day they began pelting me and our supervisor with rocks; the supervisor was in a wheelchair. I got my supervisor indoors and when things seemed to have quieted down, I went back out to retrieve my stainless-steel water bottle, which they had already managed to completely destroy. After this tough Algerian man was also traumatized the by the bottle kids (they tried to pull him off his bike and go through his groceries), we sort of bonded. By the time Noreen and I were ready to leave the camp, this man considered me a friend and insisted we take a picture together with his phone. Although this man seemed frightening at first, he was actually a kind person, and, of course, broken in his own way.
These two stories got me to thinking about how people become broken, and it occurred to me that we are all broken somehow. It is part of the human condition. Compared to the residents of the refugee camp, their lives devastated by war or crime, we find it easy to hide our own brokenness—we even hide it from ourselves—believing as we do that we can successfully walk between the raindrops. Yet the trauma of everyday life is a type of trauma nonetheless, and if we embrace our own brokenness, however easy it is to hide, then we can better understand those for whom life is a constant, monumental struggle. The full-time employees of the NGO we worked with already understood this, and they were open about how they, themselves, were broken. Our wheelchair-bound supervisor was physically broken, the victim of a reckless driver when she was a teenager. She was also emotionally broken, having been kicked out of her family home at 18 when she told her mother that she was gay. Yet there she was, far from her home in Australia, helping others. Why did she share such personal details with us? It was the standard practice amongst the organizers of this refugee help organization, and they invited us to listen and share our own stories, if we cared. Being broken was normalized. We could thus more easily accept the refugees as fellow human beings.
So how do you help refugees when you have no geopolitical power, no ability to set the world straight for them, no jobs to give them, no homes to provide? What we do have is the ability to reflect back to the refugees their own humanity, no matter how desperate their lives are. Yes, we provided clothes and a laundry service, supplemented the food they received from the Greek government, loaned them bicycles to ride to town, provided access to sewing machines so they could repair and make their own clothing. We made their lives a tiny bit more normal and less stressful, but the real heart of the work was to be that mirror, reflecting back to these refugees their own goodness.
After leaving the refugee camp, I considered my time with truly broken people more or less over. That the lessons learned in Greece would be less than applicable elsewhere. On the farm in Britain, everyone seemed so accomplished and self-sufficient. I mean, one morning Tony got up and said "We need another revenue stream. I'm going to look into distilling." For four days he threw himself into the task of pricing equipment and supplies, the tax implications, the sales avenues and current margins of existing craft distilleries. After four days, he decided against the idea. But I was amazed at how thorough and fast he had been. I wish I could move that fast and be that decisive! Yet everyone on the farm had some kind of revenue stream going. And there were a LOT of people on the farm! Nolwenn, the French woman managing the cheese operation, was the only full-time employee. Everyone else was there because they were family or wanted to be there, and they could split the profits for whatever it was they contributed to the farm's income. There were two teenage brothers who were part-time employees at the pub (they worked four to six hours on Friday night, same on Saturday night) and it was getting to know them and their father, Wayne (who was a great, friendly fellow) that I learned how broken their family was. Wayne had lost his oldest son, the two teenagers' older brother, four years ago in a horrifying triple murder that resulted in a sensational, nationally publicized trial. As I gradually learned everyone else's story, I realized they were all people who were profoundly broken in one way or another. An education cut short by a epilepsy. A severely broken home life. A career delayed by depression. Then there was Monty, an American who had no discernible role on the farm, except that of "resident poet." If you see me walking around campus with a visitor sporting the most outrageous handlebar moustache next month, you'll know Monty has come for a visit.
Tony collected broken people. And he loved them all. He loved whoever they loved as well. He explained to me that this was just the way you had to do things: someone you loves falls in love, you have to love that person too, even if you think he's a twit... Tony used more colorful language, though. Over the course of January, I thought I detected why Tony was fond of broken people. He didn't seem to get up before 9:00 or 10:00 in the morning, which is strange for a farmer. He was mardy (Darbyshire for "grumpy") most of the time—in fact, the farm brand was "Grumpy Farmer" as in Grumpy Farmer Ale and Grumpy Farmer Cheese. He even had a grumpy dog, Peg, who for some reason liked me, until she wanted the warm spot I'd created on the couch. One day at lunch asked Tony if he had seasonal affective disorder; he looked at me and grunted, "You tell me. The only thing winter is good for is sleeping." My real answer came when we returned to the farm in April, and Tony seemed a different person. He'd complete a project by 8:00 a.m. some mornings, and his grumpiness was more of an act for the benefit of the pub patrons than actual grumpiness.
I could go on about the brokenness that I continued to notice. Or about my own anxiety over having wasted all my precious time as a young man. But I want to finish with what I figured out about brokenness:
Tony collected broken people, because broken people are a gift to him and a gift to us all. Broken people teach us how to be. They teach us how to live with grace.