Thursday, 12 January 2017

Speaking of Kindness

This is the story of how I met Dave, my husband.

A “how we met” story may not at first glance fit the theme of my blog, which is, loosely, cross cultural living. Then again, what else is a marriage—or a partnership, or a close friendship that’s lasted for years—but an endeavor in bridging two cultures? 

Dave and I in September 2001
Dave and I met in Terminal C of the Cincinnati International Airport. (A cross-cultural theme emerges already!) Meeting the love of your life in an airport is fairly unusual, but in our case was not quite as huge a coincidence as it sounds. We were both on our way to a conference—a conference specifically for new faculty at Mennonite colleges in the U.S., to be held in the middle of Kansas. Dave was flying to this conference from Ohio, and I, from Virginia; we’d just arrived in Cincinnati to catch our connecting flight to the Plains—to the campus of Hesston College, to be precise. There, we’d spend the next two days with other new Mennonite college faculty, and some of our respective provosts and deans, thinking together about higher education from a Mennonite perspective.

I wanted to frame this story by making some fun—gentle fun!—of Mennonite higher education. This morning, I told Dave some of the jokey anecdotes I planned to relate in this story, based on memories I have of that conference. (Here’s one: What are some titles of panels you’ll hear at a conference on Mennonite colleges? "Re-imagining / Re-imaging our Symbols of Church Community on the College Campus." "Radical Professors, Conservative Students: The New Generation Gap." "Academic Freedom or Anything Goes? Being Faithful to the Church while Creating Forums for Open Discussion.") While he laughed with me, Dave also said, “It’s easy for us to make fun of Mennonite education, because we grew up immersed in that culture.”

We did. We both went to Mennonite colleges ourselves—he in Canada, I in the U.S.—and each taught at Mennonite colleges for a few years: Dave at Bluffton College from 2000 to 2002; I at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) from 2000 to 2003.

“Still, we probably shouldn’t make fun of Mennonite education,” Dave said this morning. “You know, at least they weren’t trying to tell us that Donald Trump sits at the right hand of God.” (Or, I suppose— looking for a roughly equivalent political scenario from the summer of 2000—that George W. Bush sat there.)

Dave’s right, of course: Mennonite colleges have a lot going for them, and one of the aspects I most like and respect about them is that the majority of the faculty and administration are thoughtfully left of center. But yes, it’s also easy (or just tempting) for me to pick on Mennonite institutions, for the very reason Dave identified.

Hesston College, in Kansas
Of that Mennos-in-academia conference, I’ll just say we were greeted not by a buffet of canapés and cold shrimp—nor, God forbid, anything alcoholic—but were each given, instead, upon registration, a Zip-Lock plastic bag containing exactly five Hershey kisses and one ham and cheese sandwich on Wonder Bread. Instead of staying at the local Marriott or Hilton, we bunked two people to a cement-floored dorm  room, with one big bathroom per hall. I’ll just say that, during the plenary session, we may or may not have played games—games in which we broke into teams and raced other teams to fill out a questionnaire about . . . Mennonites! (Which state has more Mennonites, Indiana or Pennsylvania?)

And yet this conference—these two days in Hesston, Kansas, where Main Street literally dead ends into a grain elevator—changed my life. When I walked up to my departure gate in the Cincinnati airport, Dave was the first person I saw. That he and I actually were headed to the very same place, for the next several days, was a thrilling fact I’d learn minutes later. But my first impression had nothing to do with this knowledge. There he was, with wire-rim glasses and messed-up brown hair. In that room teeming with people, my eyes went straight to his face. There he was. And already he was looking at me.

Dave and I at my Ph.D. graduation, May 2001.
It’s the closest I ever came to love at first sight—which, I think now, is a not quite truthful or accurate expression. More truthful or accurate is lust at first sight. That, I am willing to bet, most of us have experienced on more than one occasion. But you need hindsight or retrospect—a little, at least—to tell if the initial attraction, that frisson you felt upon your first meeting, actually did lead you to love.

I still remember that day in the airport—and the two days that followed—quite clearly. I still can see Dave as he was when I walked into our mutual gate of departure. He was wearing black Fluevog boots and jeans, and a black T shirt with an unbuttoned flannel shirt over it. I liked, and still like, that he’d attend an academic conference dressed in such laidback style.  

He didn’t talk to me much, those two days. I had to keep approaching him, sitting down near him, firing up the conversation. Anyone who knows Dave at all will not find this surprising. But he did seem to listen to me when I talked. And once, when I asked to see the tattoo peeking out from his T shirt sleeve--I may even have pushed that sleeve up, just a little--he made a joke. The tattoo, in Hebrew, read I am what I am. “A combination of Pop Eye and God,” Dave said, and when I laughed at this, I saw him smile for the first time.

During this conversation, we were standing inside a doorway, leaning opposite door jambs. Just outside of this doorway, in a courtyard with a circle of chairs, a group of our fellow conference-goers were telling stories. I have no idea what they were talking about. All I retain from this episode is that Dave and I could have moved on from that doorway, but we didn’t. For the next five or ten minutes, we stood in that doorway with our shoulders angled toward one another.

I was sharing my Hesston dorm room with my dean at EMU, Marie Morris. “That David Janzen is pretty interesting, don’t you think?” she said that night, as we lay in twin beds across the small room from each other. She thought she’d detected some spark. I agreed that Dave was interesting. Then I said, “He’s pretty full of himself.”

Earlier that day, having flown in from Cincinnati, a dozen of us Mennonite academics had gotten stuck inside a big revolving door at the Wichita airport. We were half inside it, squeezed tight together, when the door stopped revolving. All ten or twelve of us—plus our luggage—were trapped inside this stuck door. Uproar and chaos ensued. We pounded and pushed on the glass; we hollered and laughed and, for a good minute or two, didn’t move.  

A crevice of space was still open behind us. No one saw it but Dave. He turned around and slipped quietly out. Through the glass walls, over the heads of the other Mennonite academics ensnared with me in the giant revolving door, I saw Dave leave the building by another exit and walk down the sidewalk, alone. He got into the van that had come for us and was sitting on the back seat, calmly waiting, when the rest of us finally broke free.    

But who was I kidding? I loved this. Later on, I called it Dave’s “I’m Too Sexy for This Conference” vibe. It seemed to communicate to me something of Dave’s essential self: his quirkiness and his confidence; the way he instinctively follows his own lights, without worrying about what everyone else is doing. A week after that conference ended, I sent him a short, jokey email. He sent one back, equally jokey. He asked me a question. I answered. We were living a 9 ½ hours' drive apart, but before long we were writing each other daily, and our emails seemed to shorten that gap. When I very casually asked if he had a hankering to meet in New York and go on a pub crawl, sometime, Dave wrote back: “I’ll meet you whenever you want!”

Walking into our wedding -- May 2002
That’s pretty much all it took. We met in New York on New Year’s Eve, 2000—this time intentionally. By the time that date was over, we’d been hanging out for 4 ½ days, nonstop, and I was already in love. We got married 16 months later.

In preparation for telling this story today, I went back through some old letters and journal entries that I wrote about meeting Dave, not long after it happened. What most surprised me, reading those old reports, were my flippant tone and my focus on what I’d perceived to be Dave’s loftiness. Writing about him, back when we were first starting to date, I focused on how, at that conference, Dave rarely had given me the time of day—while I had to keep coming at him: stirring the pot, as it were. I described how, in Kansas, Dave had held back and watched me, the way you watch a child or pet you might find amusing. And once, when I asked Dave if he studied theology—this must have happened: I recorded it several times—he’d said with a lifted brow, “I don’t sully my hands with such matters.”

Okay, I still think that’s pretty funny. But why, in our first months of dating, did I fixate on this incident? What was I about—with my self-disparaging tone, with my little jokes about Dave’s haughtiness—in these early versions of our meeting story?

At one level, I think I was working out my own anxiety. Were Dave and I too different, maybe? Did we have enough in common? Did my way of being in the world—outwardly focused, high energy, loud—have a prayer of ever fitting with Dave’s?

But I no longer want to poke fun—not even gently—at this perceived difference between us. It no longer seems so important to me: how reticent, detached, and self-sufficient Dave seemed to me then, when I was just getting to know him.

I’d rather dwell on how Dave tells the story—how he’s always told it, right from the start—about our meeting at that long-ago conference: “All I remember is that I flew to Kansas, and you pushed up the sleeve of my shirt, and then I flew back again.”

I’ve said it before but it bears repeating: Dave is fundamentally a nicer person than I am. Not everyone knows this because he’s so quiet, comparatively, and in North America, we have a tendency to equate exuberance with real kindness. But one of the reasons I fell in love with Dave is that I could see right away: Here is someone who wants me to be my best self. Here is someone who, just by being himself, will help me to be a better person.

He did it again, just this morning, reminding me of the gratitude, rather than disparagement, that I owe the Mennonite Church. Or, at least, he tried. (As you may have noticed, I did still tell some of my jokes.)

Speaking of kindness. Speaking of trying to be our best selves. Here’s where I make a transition.

I’m deeply aware—how could I not be?—of the changing of the guard that will happen in the White House, later this month. I see this change, the result of the recent U.S. elections, as a real failure of kindness. I see the man who will enter the White House as the very antithesis of trying to be one’s best self.

Is the story of the recent U.S. elections a story of breakdown—political, ethical, moral?  I believe that it is. It’s a story about how we forgot, for a time, what it means to be truthful and decent and compassionate.

But I refuse to let this story define me. It does not represent who I am. Nor does it represent the U.S., my home country, in any unified or authoritative way.

I want to set my own story against it. To push back. We all have our own stories to set against the current national story. Stories with which we can push back. Stories of other, happier, more hopeful beginnings than this. Stories that remind us of our better selves, of who we want, and aim, to be. 

What are your stories? Remember them. Tell them. Hold onto them. Listen to one another's. Stand for a while in the doorway and see what you notice. Or, if you get stuck there, turn around and find another way out.

10 comments:

  1. Word. Kindness, so simple, and powerful. Appreciate you sharing your "how me met" story. Happy new year, Patricia!

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    1. Thank you, Monica! Happy New Year to you as well.

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  2. " a Zip-Lock plastic bag containing exactly five Hershey kisses and one ham and cheese sandwich on Wonder Bread."

    Definitely worth joking about!

    Loved reading this and I appreciate the challenge to think about my own story set against the current national story. I do think I'd like to write about that as a way of processing my own reactions to where the US is right now. And I might benefit from hearing others who feel differently than I do - how does their story intersect with the current national story?

    Thanks Patricia for recounting/reliving this weekend for us!

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    1. Thank you, Joyce, for agreeing that parts of that weekend were joke-worthy! (It alleviates the Mennonite guilt.) ;-) And I'd be very interested to read your own story that you would set against the national story.

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  3. I absolutely love that Dave just left all of y'all stuck in the revolving doors and didn't even bother to mention that there was another way out! Also love his telling of that weekend.

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    1. I know: It's classic Dave, isn't it? From the first day I met him, he is truly himself!

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  4. Patricia, I think you ought to consider sending a version of this to the NYTimes Modern Love editor Dan Jones.

    I love the tatoo of "I am what I am" linked to Popeye. I'll never read the Bible the same way again.

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  5. Ooh, Shirley, that's a fun thought! But haven't I disqualified myself by already "publishing" it here on the blog?

    Regardless, thank you for the nice compliment. And I love it that Dave's got you thinking of Pop Eye now, when you read the Bible. :-)

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  6. I think you could change it enough to make it new. I recommend listening to the podcast, and especially to the second half where the editor describes what makes the essay work for him. http://blog.lauramunson.com/2016/06/16/modern-love-the-podcast/

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    1. Thank you, Shirley! Once I finish this novel I'm writing, I may very well look into this. I appreciate the suggestion!

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