November 22, 2011 - Thanksgiving Assembly Comments
University School Families and Friends,
I have many things to be thankful for at this time of year, and most recently, I am grateful for the opportunity to go down to the island of Eleuthera to visit my son James, who is currently down at the Island School
I know that in talking to my son, he has grown aware of many things for which to be grateful.
The program is quite remarkable, and quite rustic and remote. The land is fragile, and naturally occurring resources, such as water and locally grown food are quite scarce. So they have become incredibly careful stewards of the land and local resources.
• They maintain a carbon neutral footprint – using wind and solar power extensively.
• They catch and store rainwater for all their freshwater, and so when it runs out, it runs out.
• They grow much of their own food by raising pigs, tilapia, and hydroponically grown vegetables.
We ate our meals at the Island School, and one evening we had tilapia. One day a pig was slaughtered, and so we had pulled pork.
All of these systems teach the students to be aware of the importance of conservation, to waste nothing, and to be thankful for the simplest of things, like a glass of water, or fresh bread at breakfast.
Another feature of the program is the amount of contact that students have with local Bahamians. They study life in the local villages, take oral histories, and study local culture. They volunteer in a local school, and this aspect has been fascinating to my son.
It is important to understand that the economy of the island, which is largely dependent on tourism, is extremely depressed. There are few jobs available, and everywhere you go, you see signs of failed efforts to spur growth and jobs, like the abandoned golf course near where we stayed, with eerie rotting, falling down buildings. The roads are in terrible disrepair, and even finding a restaurant is a challenge.
You have to learn to go with a certain island mentality. The economy is so simple that you cannot even rent a car, and one needs transportation when visiting, so the folks at the school arrange for visitors to borrow a car for a modest sum of money – and all transactions are in cash. I did not use a credit card the entire time I was on the island.
We ‘borrowed’ a car from a gentleman named James Major who met us at the airport. I did not sign anything, he did not look at my license – he just asked my name and he handed me his keys. He said, "I’ll see you in four days," and off I drove, (on the left hand side of the road for the first time in my life) in his old Nissan with bald tires, rusty floor boards, and windshield wipers that were so decrepit, they made visibility worse when it rained.
Many of the cars that visiting families borrowed had problems. They broke down periodically or had flat tires. When this happened, folks simply got word back to the owner, who, within a few hours would show up to tinker with something under the hood or arrive with a spare tire, and get things running again. No rush, no worries, just a momentary pause. Once I adjusted to this mentality, I experienced a feeling of relaxed acceptance that I have not felt in a long time.
Having this car, which thankfully did not break down, we were able to explore the island. We were able to see close up the extent of the poverty in these small local villages – these people have very little. But here is the point of this story – as we passed through, James spoke of his experience with the local Bahamians.
“I have been in these homes, Dad,” he said. “I have had meals with them and played with their children, and they have next to nothing. And they are happy – you wouldn’t believe it, but they are happy in the most surprising way.”
And for much of the visit, that became our topic of conversation. We talked about true satisfaction and happiness, and how little in fact, it takes, if you pause to appreciate what you have. In the case of these local people,
• they frequently have close-knit families;
• they don’t expect much in the way of wealth and luxury;
• they have a profound sense of attachment to the land, they have a sense of place, and a profound attachment to their culture;
• they are grateful for the simple things in life and there is no sense of entitlement or of being owed something.
And these fundamental elements seems to provide the basis for a feeling of contentment and well-being.
This lesson, this reflection on what really constitutes happiness, this gratitude and thankfulness for the simplest things in life, is without doubt the most important learning that James will take away from his time at Island School
For the opportunity for my son to learn that, I am tremendously grateful.
I will close with a Robert Frost poem called ‘Reluctance’ that conjures up the regret that we feel as the warmth of summer fades, the beauty of fall disappears, and we resign ourselves to a long winter of waiting before we re-emerge in the spring.
Before he ends his poem, however, Frost chides the reader, as he sometimes does in his poems, for stubbornly regretting and not accepting with grace, the inevitable end of things like a love, or a season.
And in fact ironically – which may well be Frost’s intent, the poem subtly evokes the blessings and the quiet beauty of the end of a season, and the quiet respite and peace that the onset of winter offers us. This respite is something I personally welcome, and for this too, I am thankful.
Out through the fields and the woods
And over the walls I have wended;
I have climbed the hills of view
And looked at the world, and descended;
I have come by the highway home,
The leaves are all dead on the ground,
Save those that the oak is keeping
To ravel them one by one
And let them go scraping and creeping
Out over the crusted snow,
When others are sleeping.
And the dead leaves lie huddled and still,
No longer blown hither and thither;
The last lone aster is gone;
The flowers of the witch-hazel wither;
The heart is still aching to seek,
But the feet question 'Whither?'
Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?
- Robert Frost
Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family!