I would blame it on the jetlag (42 hours of travel after all) but the truth is I’m a bit of a crybaby.
But let me start from the beginning- anyone who has been at my church for more than a week has heard about the Eubanks and the Dawsons. They are incredible people who have spent their lives selflessly advocating for the poor, marginalized and victims of injustice and they are incredibly loved by all who know them. I have already been exposed to so many new opportunities and experiences from spending time with Laurie, so while this trip to Thailand was NOT on my radar, I jumped at the chance to go and partner with the work going on there and to have the opportunity to spend in depth time with people I would love to learn from (hence the reason I was reading the above book for background!)
After our LONG flight, we arrived at Joan and Alan’s house and as we sat down to a traditional Thai meal, I couldn’t tear my eyes away from Joan’s face- she literally glowed with health, happiness, peace and love and I kept telling myself it might be a little strange to have a breakdown at this early, but the obvious joy was almost more than my tired mind could take. We began to eat as Joan began to sweetly and humbly share with us some of the events that led her to this lovingly arranged house in Thailand, where she has lived for over 50 years, raising four children and partnering with her husband and so many others in working with the underserved Thai and Burmese.
She talked about her days (before marriage and the move to Thailand) of dancing and singing with “Rogers” (of Rogers and Hammerstein) and with “Julie” (yes, the Mary Poppins one) with the same joy, pride and fulfillment as she did her time of leading the choir in a hospital in Chiang Mai where she lives. She spoke of her friends and neighbors, her family and her huge extended “family” with love and pride and support and gratefulness in a way that was truly unique.
It took only minimal prompting to get her to share the details leading to her marriage and we were all captured by her storytelling. “So you were “swept off your feet” by him?” Charlotte asked, to which she replied with quiet surety, “Not swept away as much as attracted like a magnet.” She told us of how their paths crossed first when he was an Army engineer assigned to escort her performing group when they visited in Korea. Although they stayed in touch over the following years, it would take almost a decade before they were in the same time and place (literally and figuratively) and were married. This moment she lovingly described as “like a ship bouncing out in the sea that finds its way into the harbor.” They were married and moved to Thailand where they have remained since.
I realized with absolute clarity as she was talking that I want to have stories to tell in THIS light when I’m her age- I want to be the kind of person who tells these KIND of stories, about my life and my marriage and my friends and my family and my work. I want to choose words of encouragement and peace and gratefulness when I share my memories with others.
We left there with much to think about. After a few hours of deep sleep, we headed out for our first day in Chiang Mai, Laurie driving and Joan leading as well from the front seat. Our day was scheduled to be a full one, as we visited many of the offices and businesses that have been supported, developed and led by this family over the years.
Our first stop was at the McKean Hospital where we met Heather (“auntie Heather” to Laurie), an Australian who had been working there for over 50 years. My infectious disease-oriented mind was captivated by her telling of the history of leprosy in Thailand and how she and her husband Trevor were central to the care, research and development of treatment plans for this devastating and difficult to understand disease in its early days. My heart has always been moved by the horrible stigmatization and prejudice these people have faced across time, and I count as one of my most hauntingly beautiful memories, standing on the shores of beautiful Molokai on a former leper colony. There was much confusion about the cause and transfer of leprosy in the early part of the last century and the typical patient was torn from his family and taken to communities where they were forced to live with others like them, away from “normal” society. The creation of community, dignity and ease of suffering through simple treatments and adaptive equipment gave opportunity for meaningful life to those that society had given up on and forgotten about. Heather described with quiet grace, tearing up several times, the meaning that this work had given her life. Leprosy is now more quickly recognized and treated and the hospital’s mission has shifted to caring for the neglected aging population in Thailand, but the heart of the mission is still the same- giving dignity and meaning, while easing suffering as they are able, to the marginalized people of society.
As we spent the rest of the day going from office to office, we interacted again and again with this same person. He or she looked different outwardly- from the 28 year olds who were peaceful and passionate about their work with these same types of people, to the middle-aged Caucasians and local Thai people to the aged and wise ones who had moved to Thailand at young ages and now truly call it home. Each of these people had made choices to live in ways and give up things that we might find incredible, awe-inspiring even, and yet that was not the general feeling I came away with.
Instead, as I interacted with each of these, who had dedicated their lives to bringing hope and meaning to the people of Thailand and Burma I was struck by their humility. I realized they had each just made one choice after another across the courses of their lives, no matter how many years that had yet been. They didn’t see themselves as heroes or worthy of special recognition, but rather as normal people who were doing what they felt called to do- people who made choices that lined up with what they knew was their role to fill on this planet. There were moments in each of their stories- many moments, as many moments as WE have- when they could have made different choices. Different choices that would have been entirely acceptable and understandable, but not true to who they were. The common thread between them all was the humble way in which they shared their stories, woven together by the choices they had made that led them where they were.
I’ve always said there are two kinds of old people- those who grow bitter and unhappy with age, and those who grow better and joyful with age. You know, the “sweet grandma” and the “angry grandma”. I have wondered regularly over the last 20 years what I’m doing to be the latter, because I’m convinced it’s the choices and attitudes we choose today that make the difference 20, 30, 40 years from now. I want to be the kind of person who makes good choices, defining good by measures and parameters that don’t always line up with what the outside world might tell us is the next or normal step. For me, those choices consist of things like choosing love and quietness, when the default is to choose anger and arguments. I want to choose generosity and kindness, when it’s sometimes easier to choose self-protection and judgment. Instead of staying so busy building for a future I’m not even sure of yet, I want to choose people and relationships and moments that become memories.
That’s what I’m taking away from the first half of this book (next half to follow after our trip into the jungle!). What about you? Do you think about these things? If so, what does that look like in your life? I would truly LOVE to learn from you!