Friday, February 26, 2010

How to say thanks?

I’m really Bad at “thank yous”.
It’s an emotional deficiency of mine
Like a shark – always moving forward – I’m not good at going back to say thanks – except maybe in very long wide circles back.

Also – I don’t know how to say a good “thank you”.
I’m often afraid that my attempts to repay, or just return, someone’s kindness will be insufficient – not good enough. (This is connected with another emotional deficiency of mine – but we won’t go there today)

How can I say thanks for the gifts of life, for the kindness of strangers, for the warmth of hospitality, for the grace of overlooked hurts? Where do I begin? How can I cover so much generosity that I experience daily?

Sometimes I feel that my thanks is perhaps unnecessary – that saying thanks might insult someone who’s shared what they have without thinking of it as a gift

These things weigh heavy on my mind and heart

When I got out of high school I went and worked in the Johns Manville plant in West Hill. Nine months of dangerous heavy industry, double-shifts, and mind-numbing assembly-line labour paid for a trip to the other side of the world.

In New Zealand I parted company with two highschool buddies and headed off alone to explore the Pacific Islands.

In Fiji I spent a week on Paradise Isalnd, a resort catering to the low-end of island travelers. I asked one of the waiters – serving up the all inclusive food and drinks and fun – where he was from. He told me of an island far off the coast of the Fijiian mainland.

“Is it possible to visit?” I asked.
“Sometimes” he explained “if you go down to the harbour at Nandi. Look for a good sized fishing boat and ask the captain if he’ll take you with him.”

It was the morning after the Easter long weekend. At sunrise I arrived with my pack at the docks. Among the yachts and sloops and cruisers, I spied a thirty foot beat-up old boat with a Fijian captain.

“Where are you heading?” I asked.
“He pointed out towards and empty spot on the ocean’s horizon.”
“Would you take me with you?”
He nodded and welcomed me and my pack aboard.

Soon, other travelers began arriving. They carried chickens and goats and crates of canned goods and all sorts of packages and bags. Just when I thought the boat was full, twenty drunken soldiers coming off the long-weekend shore leave arrived and piled onto what now seemed like a very small boat – and we headed off. I soon discovered that no one on board spoke much English.

It took most of the day for Moses – that was the captain’s name – I kid you not - to take us out to the island. We went through rain, over high watery hill after high watery hill, on and on, the diesel engine chugging out fumes that made me gag. The soldiers were drinking moonshine that I’m sure could have fired that engine – tasted like diesel fuel to me. One of the guys fells overboard and we had to take a wide slow, chugging turn round to go fish him out of the wide wide ocean’s swell.

Just when I was sure I would barf, a call went up and a spot on the horizon was identified as our destination.

I could hardly believe my eyes as we slowly approached. A magnificent volcanic island rose up out of the sea before us. A white sand beach stretched from coast to coast. Palm trees lined the shore and I could make out a village of grass and palm-leaf thatched huts between the shore and the mountain jungle behind.

Moses weighed anchor 50 yards from shore and the passengers disembarked with their goods into smaller craft. Most of the soldiers just jumped overboard and swam ashore.

When it was down to just Moses and i left on board, I approached him and asked…
“So Moses, when are you heading back to the mainland?”
“I don’t know.” He shrugged.
“Oh” I responded “Well, are there other boats that travel here?”
“no” he shook his head.
“Okay….well…where do I stay then?”
“you stay with me” he said warmly and matter of factly as if there was really no question. He took me first to see the village chief and helped me understand that the custom was to offer the chief a gift (a can of corned beef purchased from the little store that Moses stocked - was customary)

I can’t really remember how many days I lived with Moses and his family in their door-less grass home. More than a week – maybe two. I was given a corner with my own thatched mat to sleep on. I was given a place on the floor around the mealtime mat. A bowl of rice three times a day with whatever the earth offered up that day. Sometimes a crab, sometimes a fish, sometimes just rice.

One day Moses invited me to walk with him a ways down the beach where we entered the jungle and found a place where, with his machete, he cut down large orange papayas, (not like the green ones we get here but branch-ripened juicy flesh like I’ve never tasted since.) We cut bunches of bananas and dug up cassava roots from the ground to make the pulpy boiled-potatoe-like dish that was a staple at many meals.

Moses helped me to see that each family had a patch of the jungle’s grocery store to care for and cultivate.

One evening Moses invited me to come with him through the dusk to the largest hut in the village. We found a group of men inside, sitting in a circle in the low lamp light. A place was made for me between the chief and an old white-haired man. Moses disappeared into a dark corner.

I discovered that the old man was a schoolteacher and spoke fluent English. He was from this village and Christian missionaries had invited him to go and become educated at a school on the mainland. He’d become a teacher and helped to set up a residential Mission school at the far end of the island. Now, he was retired and had chosen to return to live among his family in the village again.

As the men began a ceremony led by the chief, the teacher interpreted. A large wooden bowl filled with Kava - a slightly intoxicating cassava-based drink - sat before the chief. From the bowl he filled a coconut half-shell and passed it to the man on his left. Everyone clapped once. The man downed the drink. Everyone said “Modda” (meaning it’s done) and clapped again twice. The bowl was passed back to the chief, filled and passed down to the next guy. Everyone clapped once…and so on.

My new teacher explained that this ritual was part of the invisible web of relationships that held this village together. Everything in the village was understood to be shared in common. There was no idea of ownership or property like I knew, he explained. While I was trying to get my head around this, the cup was passed into my hands and, after a clap, down it went. The chief had a turn and the cup began a second circle.

If someone needed something that their neighbour had – a pot or a tool for example – there was no need to ask permission to borrow it. You simply went and got it from your neighbour’s home. No need to say thanks when you returned it to it’s place – it all came from the same Source and belonged to the same extended village family.

Some scholars say that the ancient Mosaic Jubilee code – where debts are forgiven and wealth redistributed on a seven year cycle – was never actually practiced in Israel. They say it was just a nice theory – but an impractical socio-economic model.

I beg to differ. I’ve seen it in practice. I’ve experienced a group of people living as if all the things that kept them alive were considered a gift from the MAKER. Where no one was so attached to their own little collection of wealth that they couldn’t let it go to be used, as needed, by their neighbour.

I’m sure that if I returned to that little village today – it would be transformed. That the cash economy that seduced the waiter I met on the tourist island - would have slowly infected the spirit of the village economy and those family huts will have become little economic islands unto themselves. I hope I’m wrong about that.

I know for sure that the gifts I was given during those long, slow, days of island time changed – transformed - forever who I am. I arrived a Scarboro boy, sure that the money I earned was mine to keep or spend or waste how I saw fit. I’d learned how to pinch it out and stretch it to make it last.

I can’t forget how I got upset when Moses’ young daughter went into my pack and used some of my toothpaste. I was angry. She hadn’t asked. Hadn’t even said “thanks”.

And yet, for a purely symbolic gift of a tin of corned beef, they’d opened their lives, their homes, their village to me. Every hut in the village had invited me in to share “some tea” with them.

It still haunts me – my poor, petty greediness – my white-man ways of seeing the wealth I have like toothpaste to squeezed out in little dabs of love – my time dabbed out here and there by the hour - made to last as if God only gives us one little tube of time and money to spend and when it’s gone – we’re out of luck.

Those people had neither clock nor coin to measure out what they all enjoyed and shared.

Ever since I’ve been searching, working, praying, hoping to find, create, uncover a place where such a spirit of generosity lives. Where, how, when could such a Jubilee spirit exist today in Canada, in the West, in the midst of Empire?

I believe it is possible. I believe that a group of people gathered around the eternal springwater well of the MAKER’s love could be inspired with a courage and conviction so strong that it causes them to lose their fear of want and be filled with the joy and challenges of giving, sharing, blessing others with all that they have – with all that they are – who they are – rich and poor – in spirit and in goods.

I believe that this is really the only way to truly say Thanks.
I believe that this is what a group of believers does – and there is no need to say please and thanks – except to the ONE who truly provides.

1 comment:

Jan Stobie said...

Thanks Allan, I enjoyed the story of your experience with the island people. We are too often more connected to "our stuff" than to each other. Thanks for the reminder.