Friend and writing collaborator Gloria Mullvain followed our Haitian journey last week through the blogs we posted daily on The Vitruvian Man website. It inspired her to write a contemplation of how the choices we make, our ability to say ‘Yes’ at critical moments in our lives can lead us beyond decisive crossroads we approach throughout our lives. Currently working on a collection of personal essays, Gloria is a professional artist and photographer. She generously offers us this guest post.
Tolstoy in Haiti
The foothills of the Tucson Mountains are home to the Redemptorist Renewal Center, a spiritual haven that offers a unique opportunity for solitude, reflection, prayer, contemplation and study of the soul. Men and women from all occupations and cultural backgrounds find their ways to this bastion of spiritual revival from every part of the world. In the midst of this mystical haven sits a small and inconspicuous bookstore, a gift to all wanderers who pass through its portals seeking inspiration through the written word.
I live nearby and cannot resist the lure of books whose intriguing titles call from the shelves accompanied by the gentle voice of John Michael Talbot who frequently sings in the background. You may think it odd, but the bookstore provides me a rich opportunity to indulge my sense of smell. I read few eBooks for the sole reason that I cannot smell the musty odor of ink on paper, or feel the texture of the printed page. It makes no difference if a book is old or new, each has its own unique smell … books are my aromatherapy.
Meandering the narrow aisles, I breathe the liberation that comes with the unmatched anticipation and the childlike curiosity of finding that one, special book that waits only for my touch. Which of these titles will release my soul? Neatly ordered bookcases shelve hundreds of titles that range from spiritual classics like Therese de Lisieux’s The Story of a Soul to recent titles like Accidental Saints by tattooed minister Nadia Bolz-Weber, a book written to challenge even the most settled spirit!
It is in this inimitable and secret place that I encountered a special friend in 2012 who appears at the counter every Friday to guide readers both inexperienced and experienced as well through the maze of alluring titles. The man is an experience, much like sampling an aged wine whose quiet grace cannot conceal the satisfaction and pleasure he feels when he makes the perfect match between reader and tome. My friend is a well-read author with an unmatched thirst for life that he inhales with every breath. His simple and unassuming attire is filled with deep pockets that overflow with cultivated insight.
Recently I asked him, “Does anyone ever know and recognize the mystery unfolding before him?”
“Never,” he replied with a twinkle in his eyes.
My question came on the eve of his departure to that little known and even less understood Caribbean Island, Haiti. Without understanding the scope of the trip, he could only say ‘yes’ when random events placed him at the threshold of the most violent and impoverished slum in the Western Hemisphere, Cité Soleil.
Three questions that required affirmative answers provided the keys to open the doors that led him to Cité Soleil.
His daughter Stef Golan – Head Coach of the University of Minnesota Women’s Soccer Team – called in October and asked, “Dad, will you come to Minnesota for our final regular season game?” “Yes,” he answered, delighted when he arrived several weeks later to experience St. Paul’s first snowstorm of the season.
The morning of the match, his son-in-law Dave asked, “Would you like to visit The Sanneh Foundation (TSF) at the Conway Center in St. Paul?” Dave manages one of the foundation’s many programs. “Yes,” he answered, delighted again to sit and chat with TSF manager Tod Herskovitz for an hour. During the conversation, Tod explained TSF’s Haitian Initiative program. “I traveled to Haiti 45 years ago when Papa Doc and his infamous Tonton Macoute ruled the island with an iron fist,” my friend commented off-handedly. “You’re kidding?” Tod replied. My friend was not kidding.
Then came the final question. In late February, Tod called and asked, “Would you consider going to Haiti with us? We’re leaving in three weeks.” Without hesitation, he responded, “Yes! Count me in.”
I marvel at the coincidence of the three questions, and I ponder the weight of each ‘yes’ on the course of his life and the lives of those whose paths he would cross. With each ‘yes,’ a God-ordained door opened to reveal a piece of the hidden mystery in perfect timing, timing that altered not only the direction my friend was moving, but also the direction the children were moving, children he would soon encounter.
Three weeks later, he embarked on a pilgrimage that would take him face to face with children doing their best to survive amid the bland colors and wretched smells of a land so impoverished that it is indescribable to the cultured, American nose. For eight days, he thrived in an environment foreign to the American way of life, and he contemplated why the mere thought of appreciation could be so alien to those who have been graced with so much yet can come so easily and naturally to those graced with so little.
My friend’s original objective was to make a difference in Haiti. Along the way, the children taught him that blessings flow in both directions. As one of his new Haitian friends invited him into his home, his entire perspective changed when he realized that happiness is not measured by the value or quantity of one’s possessions, rather by one’s sense of appreciation regardless of how much we have, or how little.
His spirit shifted with more power than the earthquake that leveled the landscape in 2010 leaving rubble that still litters the crowded streets.
Faith is tested to its limits when a person descends both physically and mentally into the heart of darkness. The experience destroys some but strengthens others.
My friend found the presence of God in every child he met, in the heavy, malodorous air that rose like a dangerous specter from the steaming sewage in the street gutters, in the cacophony of the busy markets … He returned to America a stronger and wiser person than he was when he boarded the plane a week earlier.
And so I return to the three questions
- “Dad, will you come to Minnesota for our final regular season game.”
- “Would you like to visit The Sanneh Foundation at the Conway Center in St. Paul?”
- “Would you consider going to Haiti with us? We’re leaving in three weeks.”
Perhaps the three questions may not strike you as profound as the questions Russian author Leo Tolstoy posed in his short story The Three Questions,
- What is the right time to begin everything?
- Who are the right people to listen to?
- What is the most important thing to do?
My friend’s answers to his three questions – yes, yes, and yes – ultimately led him to the answers to Tolstoy’s questions:
- Remember then: there is only one time that is important — and that is now! It is the most important time because it is the only time when we have any power.
- The most necessary man is he with whom you are, for no man knows whether he will ever have dealings with anyone else.
- And the most important thing to do is, to do good, because for that purpose alone was man sent into this life!”
Think of my friend’s three questions as a call from the greater power who speaks to each of us whether we realize it or not. Do these divine calls come at the most convenient time? Of course not. These gifts come at those moments when the demands of your life are most pressing. They come as you wring your hands fighting the clock like a weary gladiator afraid to make the wrong move at the wrong time. It happens this way because this is when you cannot deny the need to make a personal assessment of your heart, to make a decision between your personal wants and the needs of others. Are we here to be served or to serve? God sets us up for so much more just so we get the opportunity to say ‘YES!’
In his final post after eight days in what Wikipedia calls “one of the poorest and most dangerous areas in the Western,” he wrote,
“My senses were on overload all week and my heartstrings were tightened beyond their limits as I encountered the plight of humanity east of Port-au-Prince.”
I don’t know about you, but I want that. I want to be in the sweet spot of my destiny, sharing my gifts and talents where they can best be used, because when you answer ‘yes,’ that is where God will put you.
Consider Tolstoy’s three questions and his answers. Right now, someone needs exactly what you have to offer, and when you understand this, the mystery of time is already working behind the scenes seeking you out and putting a plan into motion. As Steven Pressfield implores us in his book The War of Art,
“Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got.”
May this be the year you and I say “YES” at each appointed time destined by God’s call to engage our lives and to join him in blessing humanity as the mystery of time unfolds.
His call is our privilege, and that privilege alone is worthy of great celebration. Rejoice!
4 thoughts on “Tolstoy in Haiti”
Amen, i, Alleluia.
I loved every word of this and I thank Gloria for putting this piece out into the world. I believe we have an opportunity each day to do good for another in some way, shape or form. We are here to serve one another, to lift each other up and celebrate life in all its forms — from the common house spider to the mighty creatures that share this planet with us. Beautiful words and a perfect way to start my morning.
Such a very well thought out, well developed “story” by Gloria. Her heart and mind certainly held hands !! And now I must read again ! and incorporate into my own being that which was not here before. Thank you Gloria, oh, and also Gene ! maw
Beautifully written. Am so proud that you said “yes” to writing this piece!