Wednesday, May 22, 2013

a Face. a Name. a Remembrance.

Today I sat on the pavement in central London with a homeless man named Patrick.

Patrick originally hails from northern England, near Liverpool.  I'm not sure what prompted me to ask if the spot of pavement next to him was free, or if he minded if I joined him.  Maybe it was his boyish posture, the way he sat cross legged with his back against the wall and his elbows resting on his knees, like a young school boy bored of the classroom carpet circle.  Or perhaps it was the distant gaze, looking from eyes that were a beautiful shade of cornflower blue surrounding gold flecked centers, with a countenance far beyond their years.  I had a few pound coins in my pocket, but Patrick wasn't asking, his cup of McDonald's tea resting gently between his hands, respected for its warmth against the cool late spring chill.

We didn't talk of much, mostly of Liverpool and the unseasonably cold weather.  He asked about my schooling and a few of the West End shows I'd recently seen. In the end I gave Patrick the coins, apologizing for their insignificance, but hoping they could at least be useful in buying him another cup of warm tea. I'm not sure if I did much for Patrick, other than provide a cup of tea and friendly chat, but he gave me a lot.  He gave me his name.  Patrick gave me a story and a soul to go along with that rush hour glance of homelessness - a picture that would have stayed with me long after my life in London had faded away.  Patrick gave me the parting image of a smile.

Later I met Benjamin; a lower arm amputee musician playing in the Green Park tube station. I stopped and listened to him play, fascinated with his skill and with the passersby who halted and backtracked to drop a few bob in his guitar case. Earlier in the day, I had a wonderful intermission chat with the woman sitting next to me in the theatre.  A woman who was so thrilled to be seeing Singin' in the Rain on stage before it closes next week.

It's curious how we can at times feel alone in a crowded place surrounded by people - people who are just a  glance, a word, a smile away.  I think we often get busy in our own lives and concerns and forget to look outside ourselves (or beyond the screens of our gadgets).  I know that I've become absorbed in my student-self lately, and it feels so good to breathe and look beyond those bounds.  I've missed taking photos, and blogging, and sharing my experiences with others.  I've missed being more open to others sharing themselves with me.  I have had a few wonderful adventures squeezed in between school dates and deadlines, and I'm looking forward to sharing them with all of you, as I've been planning to for the last few months.  And today, Patrick taught me a new way to make my adventures more meaningful.

I came back from my Easter holiday in India with a camera full of faces - faces full of youth, of wisdom, of joy, and of sadness - beautiful faces without names. I love photographing people as I travel.  I love capturing the expression I see in their countenance, the emotion of their stance, the way they fit into their surroundings. But, I always feel as if I've taken something, without giving in return.  I treasure my photos, but I leave my beloved subjects little to treasure in return.  Patrick changed that for me, and while I don't have a photograph of him, I learned what my art has been missing: It has vision but not substance, for the sight of someone's soul without knowledge of their human identity feels hauntingly incomplete.

And so I've given myself a new goal. One that will hopefully help me to broaden myself and give back a little to all those wonderful people who touch my life, in many diverse ways. I'm going to be more mindful of those around me, and reach out more to others, in whatever level or form they may be; family, friend, acquaintance, or stranger. I'm going to put names with faces and stories with names, and, if they'll allow (and I can contrive tactful ways of asking) document images with substance.

In addition to being the day I met Patrick, today is also my mother's birthday.  My grandfather's is tomorrow, followed by mine on Friday. In honour of all they've given me through my wonderful 29 years of life, I'm going to make them the inaugural subjects of my new photo series - Real People: Personal Truths

This is my mother, Lorrie Ann Cox, with her mother, my grandmother Janice June Caldwell Cox. 
I took this photo last summer, and it is one of my favourite photographs of all time.

My mother may complain of her lack of makeup and working-in-the-garden hair, and my grandmother may shy away from the lens for her wrinkles, but all I see is joy.  I love going home to visit and stay with my mother.  She hasn't always had things easy, and like so many we could dwell on hardships of years past, but while my mother's less desirable experiences have helped to shape her, they do not define her.  My mother is quiet, but strong.  She is hard working and independent, but her heart revolves around family.  She is fresh vegetables and homemade pickles, evening country walks and country radio dancing in the kitchen, homemade haunted houses and scary movie marathons, winter snow sculptures and summertime fresh cut lawns.  She is the trailblazer who opened the path for my educational endeavors.  It was her nightly bedside kneeling and beautiful simple faith that strengthened and fed my own soul. I once asked my mother why she stayed so faithful a midst so much strife, and she replied "because it felt right". That is who my mother is to me, a beautiful smiling woman who lives and loves simply (and profoundly) because it feels right.

This is my maternal grandfather, Randall Cox, with my nephew, Ashton.
I have several other more facially revealing photos of my grandfather, but I chose this one because it embodies who my grandfather is to his grandchildren - a big playful grizzly bear.

I say grizzly - and not teddy - bear, because my grandfather is gruff, and deep, and covered in a scruffy beard most of the winter.  Babies are nervous and yet simultaneously fascinated by him.  Kids just adore him.  He's a major tease, and will play ball, pull pranks, and chase you around the yard at full speed, sometimes with a hose.  He's several years younger than my grandmother, and married her at a young age when she already had six children. They later adopted my uncle from India. He's not a man of many words, but I love his grunts, and his hardworking callus covered strong fingers, and his back breaking grizzly bear hugs.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

In case you were wondering...

...wondering where I've been that is.


has occupied 90% of my waking hours,

and the other 10% has been filled by this...

I'll get around to blogging about it at some point.
(After this MSc related resentment towards the computer wears off.)

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Sunday Senses: I Press Toward the Mark

I was assigned to give a talk in Sacrament today.  I think me speaking around Christmas and the New Year is beginning to become some kind of annual tradition (this is the 4th year in a row).  Anyway, I'm working on a post with lots of photos and updates about my holiday doings in the old world, but I may wait until after New Years to publish it.  In the mean time, I thought I'd share my talk with you.  Some of my fellow ward members requested copies of it, so I'm hoping it's of some worth.  It's a little unpolished - as most speech guides are - and is a terrible mash-up of UK and US spelling, but hopefully it still carries the same heart and sentiment in print that it did in voice.

I Press Toward the Mark (Sacrament talk – 29/12/2012)

New Year – a time of resolutions, new beginnings, looking to the future, and remembering the past.  Last year around this time my life experienced a great change. It was unexpected, unwanted, and abruptly interrupted the life path I thought I was to follow, not only for the immediate future, but for the long term.  As the New Year rolled around and the initial shock and pain began to wear off, I realized I needed to re-evaluate my future, and start to move on with my life.

I had no idea at the time that I would end up in England. In fact, for a long time I had no idea of anything, and it seemed that God wanted me to flounder in the dark, to “wander in the wilderness” so to speak.  But, looking back (as hindsight always seems to give us clearer vision) I realize that God was giving me time – time to learn from what had happened, time to heal, and time to make sure I was making sound decisions for the right reasons moving forward.

As we come to look toward a new year, I’d like to share a few things I learned in the process:

Faith always points forward.

It is a simple but true gem of a statement spoken by an inspired High Council member in a time when I really needed it. He continued:
The past is to be learned from, not lived in; don’t let your attachment to the past outweigh your confidence in the future. – HC Member, Nephi, UT
I love simple yet powerful statements; when others are able to touch and share in a few short words the concepts so many of us struggle to grasp and understand within.  There are some wonderful short and sweet passages in the scriptures that further emphasize these words…

Go forward not backward. - D&C 128:22 
Look not behind thee... - Gen 19:17 
 Remember Lot’s wife… - Luke 17:32 
..but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before. I press toward the mark… - Phil 3:13

Man’s agency is God’s limitation, but it is also his strength.

Through my trial and experience I learned that God has a limit; but it is self-imposed.  That limit is our agency.  He could interfere, but He won’t – it is counterproductive and would negate the plan of salvation.  (One of the many reasons for this principle can be found in Alma 14:8-11 in the book of Mormon.) Many, if not the majority, of our trials come not necessarily from the direct will of God, but from the consequences of the actions of others and ourselves. God must allow us, each and every one of us, to make choices and act on our own agency, whether for good or bad.  This doesn't just apply to horribly evil or large saintly decisions either – it applies to the everyday kind of good, or not so good, or maybe it could be good choices that make up our daily lives.

Initially this concept was really difficult for me to accept; it didn't shake my faith in God, but my faith in man had been severely affected. How could I possibly have faith in a future that was limited by the agency and decisions of others? I felt powerless, like a leaf left to blow in the wind of others choices. But, as I pondered and studied and prayed for faith and understanding to move forward. I came to a realization: Just as our exercising our agency to choose bad things disables God, so does using our agency to choose His path empower Him

Our agency, our choice, is powerful. Miracles happen – or cease to happen as the case may be – in the world because of the choices we make to give them power by faith. One of the best examples of this is as old as time, that of Adam and Eve in the Garden.  Their mission, their role in the plan of salvation was to make a choice, to choose to follow one path or another; and their decision effected every generation that was to follow them for eternity - it became the catalyst for the plan of salvation. Their choice was to progress, to learn from experience, to move forward.

We never lose the power to change or the potential to become better.

Faith in God and mankind is a delicate balancing act of hope and acceptance.  After spending several months working through the grieving and acceptance process, and trying to figure out these complex issues related to the sometimes perplexing dichotomies of faith, agency, miracles, and our human faults and limitations, I learned a lesson about redemption and renewal in a rather unexpected and unorthodox place.

This last May I travelled home to spend time with my family.  My mother, grandfather, and I all have birthdays within consecutive days, and we often celebrate together with a big extended family party – usually on my grandfather’s birthday as his falls in the middle of the three.  When I travel home my mother takes some vacation days from work so that we can spend time together.  This year however, she had a work commitment she needed to keep on the day of my birthday, and she invited me to come along.  My mother works as drug counsellor in a rehab program in a state prison.

So, on the morning of my 28th birthday I found myself navigating through security gates, metal detectors, and corridors of locked power doors to attend the graduation ceremony of a few dozen inmates from a drug rehabilitation program.  Out of the numerous men graduating only two or three had family members present and the majority of the audience was made up of prison staff and other inmates in the program.  There were several speakers from amongst the staff and inmates, and a lot of information shared about the program itself. With all these formalities, the thing that made the biggest impression on me was a skit a few of the graduates performed towards the end of the ceremony.

Four inmates, shaking with nerves and excitement, their muscular frames scarred, tattooed, and costumed in homemade props crafted from tape and coloured paper, acted out a short story.  The story was about a man named Addiction.  Addiction was on a quest to find Sobriety, the great and powerful being that could free him from his troubles.  On his quest Addiction kept suffering setbacks, caused by the terrible fiend Relapse. Fortunately for Addiction, he met up with a committed and strong friend named Rehab, who was able to assist by providing him with the tools and the support needed to defeat Relapse and find Sobriety. Sobriety, upon hearing of the quest and Addiction’s desires to better himself, changed his name to Recovery, as reward for his efforts and representative of the choice and commitment he was making to change and move forward.  Note that his name was not changed to Recovered – an end result, but instead to Recovery – an on-going process.  Sobriety counselled the newly named Recovery to continue to utilize the skills and tools he had obtained from Rehab and always remember the experiences he had learned from along the way, as he continued his future lifelong quest to become like Sobriety.

The significance of the symbolism in the name change was not lost on me – there are numerous stories, legends, scriptures, and practices which utilize the name change as a symbol of a changed and renewed man.  What struck me the most in that moment was the indestructible and amazing ability of man to change.  These men, who through bad choices, bad circumstances, and most likely a tragic combination of both, had ended up locked away in the dungeons of society, many for a long time.  These men, with all their worldly autonomy, agency, and daily life choices stripped away from them, still had one amazing power than no prison walls, or hand-cuffs, or standard issue jump suit could take away from them – the ability to change, and to change for the better.

Some accounts of life changing moments are epic tales of angelic visions or physical transformations, but we don’t need be struck dumb or have angels charge us with fiery admonitions to have a change of heart. We only need the desire, and the right tools to help us fulfill that desire. We just need to take the sacrament on Sundays, and say our prayers and read our scriptures and consciously try to be better every day.  The change likely won’t be as immediate or dramatic as those caused by angelic visions, but it is constant, and consistent. It is daily rehab – daily renewal of choices, commitments, and desires – that helps us to progress and become better day by day. No matter where we are in our own stories, in our own personal conversions and conversations with God – whether in the winding down of a long life or the winding up of young one,  whether celebrating at the apex of success with everything in the world at our feet, or sitting in a prison cell with all our worldly choices and agency stripped away – there is one thing that is never taken from us, and that is our ability to change, to grow, to choose to become better, to renew ourselves, to move forward with faith.

Moving Forward

They say the only constant in life is change, but I would like to respectfully disagree; or rather, amend that to include something else, and that is the eternal and unbiased consistency of the love of God, and his never ending patience and care in helping us to adapt and learn from change.  The gospel, the atonement, and their power to renew will always be available to us, no matter our circumstances, if we but choose to recognize and accept them.
But continue thou in the things which thou hast learned and hast been assured of, knowing of whom thou hast learned them. – 2 Tim 3:14
Now, unfortunately – or fortunately I guess, depending on how you look at it – no matter how much we may want to, we can never force good choices on others, and as good as we try to be, we will in all likelihood still make mistakes ourselves.  We can and will hurt, and can and will be hurt by others, no matter how idyllic our aspirations. But, don’t lose hope, for tomorrow is a new day, a new opportunity; and remember- faith always points forward, agency is powerful, and we never lose our potential to change for the better.