Interestingly, this has proven to be one of the more difficult series of profiles to do--and I expect the others will be easier by comparison. Why was writing about my friends so challenging? There are a number of reasons--the biggest of which, is that friendships can be fragile things. A wrong choice of words or a misunderstanding of intent can throw a friendship into crisis. This is compounded by the fact that the influence of my friends, especially those from early in my life, was often found through the hard times--times when we fought, times when emotions boiled over and I hurt them or they hurt me. Trying to articulate how my friendships helped me grow emotionally has been vulnerable process for me and for those I count as friends. I've tried to be truthful in assessing my friend's influence without violating their privacy. I was discussing this project with one of the people on this list, worrying over how to say what I wanted to say, and this person told me, "Well, at least you're not writing a paragraph profile on every single person on the list. It's your blog. You can do whatever you want." This is true. And in that spirit, I have chosen to write a profile on each person saying what I have to say as honestly and tactfully as I can, and let the chips fall where they may.
One more caveat--my profiles say more about how I view my friends than how they actually are, and these profiles should not be assumed to be sum total of who each person is.
Also a brief word on the photos that go with each profile. Getting some of these photos was no easy task, as several people on the list I've lost contact with completely. I felt vaguely creepy nipping pictures off people's Myspace accounts and google image searches, and my apologies to anyone who shares that vaguely odd feeling about finding their photo appearing here. But hey, that is, after all, the nature of the internet. Where I could not find a photo, I had to make do with an image that I felt was at least somewhat representative, not necessarily of who that person is in their totality,but of how they have influenced me. The images I've chosen are not always ideal, but they were the best I could do.
The friends that have had a formative influence on my life are a diverse group. Their are eight men and six women. Some, like Judith and Elliot I knew for a season in my life and have since lost touch with. Some are high school friends that I've drifted apart from as time and distance have taken their toll. Three--Aaron, Joyce, and Grant--I met since I've lived in Saipan. And a very few have remained close and constant friends over the years since I met them. As I wrote, I found myself referencing the life lessons I learned from each individual on this list, and that means, whether near or far, their influence still resounds in my life today.
Paul Wood & Christi Snell
Carissa Berard Cotta
Aaron & Joyce Knowlton
Paul Wood & Christi Snell
They were probably the best friends I ever had in elementary school and I didn't even know it. Only in hindsight was I able to see that Paul and Christi were loyal, faithful friends at a time when I didn't have many. I'm afraid I wasn't near as a good friend to them as they were to me. I believe I took both of them for granted, though in very different ways. With Christi, I guess I was blinded by love. Christi was my first big crush, and I was madly infatuated with her. To my seventh-grade mind, she was simply the hottest thing on the planet. So consumed was I with my attraction for her, that I think I missed her simple acceptance of me, her trustworthy and open-hearted friendship. I didn't realized until years later, after the crush had long since faded and our freindship had drifted apart how lucky I was to have had her in my life. In Paul's case, it was familiarity that bred a careless contempt and blurred my vision. I've known Paul longer than just about anybody outside of my family. We rode to school together for years, his parents and my mom were great friends--Paul was always around, almost like family. And like I treated my family at that age, I often scorned his company in favor of chasing after "cool kids" who cared about me far less than he did. Only later, perhaps too much later, did I realize how foolish I'd been. Paul was a friend that made my difficult years of elementary school that little bit easier, and could have done so even more, if I'd let him. Though, I was uaware of Paul and Christi's influence then, at least I can be grateful for it now.
“There’s only one thing that really matters in this life,” J said, little knowing that his casual insight would change the course of my life. “It’s to know God and to get to heaven.” Original idea? Not hardly. But for some reason, it was exactly what I needed to hear. It was the summer of 1992, I was 18 years old and felt like I didn’t have a reason to live through the end of the year. I was on the phone with J bemoaning the hopelessness of my life. I suppose J could have reprimanded me for my self-centered whining, or he could have just feigned sympathy while checking his watch—this was some pretty long-winded existential angst after all. But that wasn’t J’s style; I don’t think he knows how to be anything other than thoughtful and genuine. That conversation and those wise words of J marked a turnaround in my life, the beginning of a sense of hope and purpose in this life--as well as in the life to come--that stays with me to this day.
J’s been my best friend for almost 20 years. We met in Earth Science class during our freshman year in high school. We stayed in touch during college, went on road trips, went to Chuuk together as student missionaries, toured Europe together. For many years he lived only an island or two away from me in Micronesia and now that he & his wife Evelyn have relocated back to the United States he lives just two hours away from my in-laws in Ohio.
For just about all of those years I’ve always listened when J spoke. He always seemed to have this wisdom well beyond his years and he has a knack for always telling me exactly what I need to hear. I know I can always count on him to tell me the truth. He’s helped me see the light with various romantic entanglements, spiritual issues, and even my nascent writing career. The great thing about J is that he conveys hard truth in a way that is encouraging, kind, and hopeful. After talking to J I not only feel like I see things more clearly, but I feel better too.
Chris always preferred to stand. Our little high school clique would be hanging out at Geri's house, sitting around basking in our silly sense of coolness, and there would be Chris. Standing. Leaning against the entryway to the living room as if he might make his getaway at any moment. We'd urge him to sit, like the rest of us. His insistence on standing was making us nervous. But Chris didn't care to be like the rest of us. And because Chris couldn't be bothered with kowtowing to what other people thought, he refused to be pigeon-holed. Here was a gun-toting cowboy of a guy usually dressed in a white t-shirt, blue jeans, and a scowl. . .who was also a gifted writer, avid reader, and armchair philosopher. He was a weight-lifting, athletic. . .anti-jock. He was quite popular, a guy with a free pass to the cool kids club. . .who preferred to be alone. He was a hunter and fisherman who liked nothing better than to work with his hands. . .but was also the top student in his class, voted most likely to succeed. And succeed, he did. Though not on "their" terms. He could have been a surgeon, an attorney, a CEO but instead of doing what others thought he ought to do, Chris did what he knew he should do, what he would be happy doing. For someone like me, who in those days often cared too much what other people thought, who was often too eager to make peace even at the cost of my own self-respect, Chris Cotta was a bracing corrective. He was always pushing me to march to the beat of my own drum, or not, heck, not march at all!
“Friends Forever.” We carved those words into two simple sticks of wood. We were high school sophomores when Chandra and I made those vows of friendship. She kept one stick and I kept the other. In the years to come, the keeping of those vows was the challenge. We charted a stormy course—filled with euphoric highs and devastating lows. During my freshman year of college, as I was adjusting to a new life miles away from anyone or anything familiar, her letters, full of affection and care, kept me going. When we had our “last fight” in the spring of 1994, I went through an agonizing time of change and growth that ultimately made me a stronger, more confident person. Chandra is responsible for some of the proudest moments in my life. It wasn’t always fun or easy but Chandra helped me become the person I am today. That stick she gave me all those years ago is kind of like our friendship now. It's been put away for a long time now, but I know this: I still have it.
Carissa Berard Cotta
When you were with her, you felt like anything could happen, as if you were in a movie. She was smart, independent, just that tiny bit dangerous and just that little bit dark, the one that would travel the world with you seeking adventure. Carissa was the girl flouting tradition and the order of things to follow her heart. Well, today the girl that gave Lara Croft a run for her money has become a successful career woman, mother, and wife. Of course she does all that in the wilds of Alaska, so there you go. From Carissa I developed a taste for the romance of travel and adventure that stays with me to this day. Carissa’s influence also lingers on in my writing. When I want to create a compelling, appealing, and exciting character, I draw from what I remember of Carissa--smart, independent, just that tiny bit dangerous and just that little bit dark.
In a world full of people, only some want to fly,
Isn't that crazy?
---from “Crazy” by Seal
For probably the first time in my life, I was surrounded by black people. I was a freshman at Andrews University. I didn't know anyone, but my roommate was African-American, and all the people I met through him were too. I found myself in new and unfamiliar waters and I wasn't quite sure how to navigate. To look at me, you'd think I'd fit right in, after all I'm black too, right? But I only had to begin to speak, and it was obvious I was out of my element. "Why do you talk like that? Why are you trying to be white?" people would ask me. It was hard to explain that I wasn't trying to be anything. This was just the way I talked. Coming from a mixed race background where even my blood relatives represent the colors of the rainbow, I guess I never truly felt in my element except in the family circle. I didn't truly "belong" among my white friends in high school. And now it appeared, I didn't fully belong among the people who were purportedly "my own." And then Elliot Jeremiah came along. He lived down the hall from me and was friends with my roommate. He was a charismatic campus leader, president of the BSCF (Black Student Christian Forum) and leader of his own a cappella group, Called. Eventually we became friends. Though during my first year of college many of my friends were black, Elliot was the friend who helped me feel at home. He didn't judge me for my "white" accent or my love of Van Halen, U2, and Michael W. Smith (though he did help me understand that Smith was not Gospel. Gospel was groups like New Jersey Mass Choir, Richard Smallwood, Kirk Franklin, Commissioned--artists I came to appreciate through Elliot). While certainly more "culturally" African American than I was, Elliot didn't feel the need to fit into stereotypical molds, and he helped me understand that I didn't need to either. Over the years, as we worked together at the LOFT in inner city Benton Harbor, took a road trip to Texas, attended each other's weddings (Called sang at mine), and had our every three-week barbershop appointments (Elliot was a master barber that kept my "fade" looking good all through college), Elliot helped me learn among the black community, what I had already learned among the white. That people are just people, and there was nothing wrong with being black like me.
In the fall of 1995, just a few weeks before I would meet the woman who would become my wife, I drove out to Chicago to visit my friend Kim. I hadn’t seen her in more than a year and I wondered what the weekend might hold. We’d been through all kinds of ups and downs—relationship challenges the like of which I’d never been through until I met her. She was the first woman I’d ever really, truly fought with. She was also the first woman I’d felt dangerously drawn to—when I was with her I felt like I was playing with fire—exhilarating, addicting, with the very real possibility of getting burned. She was three years older than me, and I learned quickly after we met in the fall of my freshman year that being a boy wouldn’t do with Kim. I would have to be a man. So on that clear fall day, after all the craziness we’d been through, I wasn’t sure what to expect. It turned out to be one of the nicest weekends of my life. Rather than exhilarating and addicting, it was quiet and warm—I was no longer playing with fire, I was sitting contentedly next to one. All the adrenaline had drained away, but in it’s place was the comfort of solid friendship. We talked for hours, ate at great little places in her Irving Park neighborhood, and walked. We walked for hours, hand in hand, all over Chicago it seemed, in the brisk autumn air, enjoying the simple pleasure of each other’s company. There were no demands, no longings, no frustrations. When I drove away at the end of the weekend, I somehow knew we’d always be friends. You could say Kim taught me the ropes. In our ups and downs, I learned much of love, life, and relationships in the grown-up world.
I only knew Judith for a short period of time. For less than a year we shared a few classes and worked together in the Behavioral Sciences Department at Andrews University. Then I went off to be a student missionary in Micronesia and she moved to California. I only saw her once after that--almost nine years ago, when Barbara and I had lunch with Judith and her husband in California when we were on our way to our new home in Saipan. But in the short time that we knew each other, she had remarkable influence on my life. From Judith, I gained a template for what a fun, real, and comfortable relationship should be like. With Judith, there were no games, no pretensions, no awkwardness. And the funny thing is, Judith was the type of person I would ordinarily have found very intimidating: she was model-beautiful, with a brilliant mind and a very hip coterie of friends. Yet, whether we were goofing around at work, wandering Chicago's art gallery district for our Art History class, or making eggplant parmigiana with cream puffs for dessert on a long winter Sabbath afternoon, I always felt totally at ease with being myself around Judith. Though, our friendship was always strictly platonic, after knowing Judith for that brief time, I knew that any romantic relationship I entered into would have to have that same relaxed, natuaral quality. A memory: We're in a little Spanish restaurant in Chicago. Judith orders an espresso. Suavely, I order one too--and make that a double. I'm lean back smug in my behomeian, coffee-drinking coolness. They bring our order, and I wonder outloud to Judith:
"Man, I ordered a double, and look at this tiny little cup they brought me."
"Don't you know what an espresso is? It's very concentrated, strong coffee. You wouldn't want it any bigger than that. You did know that, didn't you?"
"Don't open this envelope until I'm gone," he said in his inimitable deep and solemn voice. Right then I knew Big Will was up to his old tricks. Without even knowing what was inside, I wanted to say "No, Willie, you don't have to do this. Really." But I knew Willie well enough to know that "No" wouldn't make a dent with him. So I agreed. And when he was gone, Barbara and I opened the envelope and found $700. Seven. Hundred. Dollars. Why? Perhaps he thought we needed the money. Maybe it was a late wedding gift (he'd been a groomsman in our wedding a few months earlier). But most likely there was no reason--there didn't need to be with Willie--he was just being outrageously generous. That's how Willie was, that's how Willie had always been.
I'm ashamed to admitt that when I first met Willie Hawthorne (or Big Will as I called him--he was quite tall, and built like granite) I didn't like him very much. I thought he was weird. It took me awhile to figure out that Willie's unorthodox nature was a thing of great value. God broke the mold when he made Big Will, and in gaining him as a friend, I learned that broken molds are a good thing. Big Will was an extremely deep thinker--so deep I sometimes couldn't follow him. He could also be off-the-wall goofy (though I learned there was often wisdom even in his foolishness). He was fanatically generous (as you've seen), insanely kind, over-the-top spiritual, absurdly humble. From Big Will I learned that a colorful character makes for a brighter life, and often, a rich friendship. I haven't seen Will since that day he handed me that envelope, but I'm sure that wherever he is he is shining the light of God's love--in kaleidescopic hues. "Speak of the Potter, not of the clay" Big Will told me, when I informed I was writing about him in my weekly column in my college newspaper. I write today what I ended my column with then: "A well-formed vessel speaks much of it's Potter."
Joyce & Aaron Knowlton
They probably don't know this, but such was the impact on our lives, that Barbara and I actually coined a word based on Aaron & Joyce Knowlton. "Knowltonesque." What does it mean to be Knowltonesque? Well, it helps to beautiful, inside and out. Aaron and Joyce are. A Knowltonesque teacher loves their students and wins the hearts of the kids, not by trying to be cool but by being cool. And I might add a Knowltonesque teacher never lets being cool get in the way of being an excellent educator. Aaron and Joyce were those kinds of teachers when they taught at the Saipan SDA School for two years from 2000 to 2002. Knowltonesque people are always fun to be around and they always make you feel appreciated. Aaron and Joyce, the only other married couple on the staff at that time, always made Babs and I feel that way. Knowltonesque people leave a legend and legacy behind. Even though they've been gone for five years now, the Knowlton mystique still lingers. Even those who never knew them personally, have heard of them. Since we've had the pleasure of working with Aaron and Joyce, I'm always excited when I meet new teachers that have that Knowltonesque quality about them--and we've blessed with quite a few of them. A new teacher arriving in Saipan might wonder? Do I have these magical "Knowltonesque" qualities? Well, here's what I learned from Aaron and Joyce. If you are devoted to God, to your students, your fellow staff members, and your mission, then you are"Knowltonesque" because after all, being Knowltonesque is not something you can try to do--it can only come from being your best self.
A lot has been said about my friendship with Grant Graves in his blog and in mine. Regular readers know how different we are. You know what a great friensdship we developed over the year and you've heard tales of our adventures together from the mundane (pie-making) to the exciting (lost in the jungles of Saipan!). You know what a charismatic speaker, writer and teacher he is. I'd like to highlight here how Grant has influenced me in those arenas. Grant has strengthened my belief in the importance of the opposing point of view. I've always believed differences were important, but with Grant I actually came to appreciate hearing from some one who disagreed with me. Grant helped me learn to see things from a different perspective without adopting that point of view and I feel like that's made me a wiser, more understanding person. Grant has also sharpened my writing and speaking skills. I've always believed in brevity, but Grant Graves is the King of Brief and he's done much to help me understand the value of the well-chosen word. Even the "blog-with-a-lesson and a punchy phrase at the beginning and end" format, I picked up from him. Finally, Grant helped me rediscover the value of friendship. I'd gotten to the place where I was pretty comfortable with my little circle in Saipan--I'd almost begun to believe I didn't really need any friends beyond the faithful few. But then a Grant came along and reminded me that a good friendship is always worthwhile and should always be highly valued.