Most of my childhood memories seem dusty, windy, or parched. The big rectangle of Colorado is roughly half lovely mountains and half dry wasteland. The images which I remember most fondly were made when we left the desert and spent time up and beyond the foothills. Up there, things grow: trees, shrubs, deer, elk, bears, and streams. The desert below is brown, grey, and yellow. Plants are stunted, twisted and tortured. And, if not tortured themselves, they’re built to torture others with spikes, thorns and scent.
I grew up just west of Pueblo in the subtly-named community of Pueblo West. It welcomes visitors with a stucco sign: “Pueblo West, A Planned Community.” I have no idea what they planned, but they ended up with several thousand houses scattered across the semi-arid desert en route to Cañon City.
I spent most of my time pretending to be elsewhere – somewhere green and inviting. I gathered most of the context for this vast, rainy escape-world through books. I was always waiting for my parents to finish their latest books, so I could get on with the unfinished series or meet a new author. I devoured C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkein, David Eddings, and James Herriot.
When I was about seven, my parents worked out that if I were to complete two school-books at a time, I could skip the third grade entirely. For my part, this was easy. That is not a boast; it’s a reflection of the hugely repetitive curriculum for kids before sixth grade. Each year seems to cover more or less the exact topics of the previous, adding little novelties toward the end. They call it review, and it’s meant to provide a solid foundation. For me – and I imagine many others – it awoke an unidentified feeling that I later put a name to: “condescension”. I felt patronised, and annoyed that the course refused to understand that I could remember last year’s lessons. Not doing homework was a cry for help – or so my parents inferred. “The boy needs a challenge!” They were probably right, but I didn’t really mean it as a cry. I was just bored. Much more interesting were real history books – with bibliographies. I was taught at home until I had finished the curriculum at 16.
I have been told I was a “strong-willed child,” which is a psychologically-sound way to describe a stubborn ass. For example, when I was five, I decided I was going to be a drummer. For one year – I think possibly to the day – I harangued my Mom and Dad to let me become one. They finally agreed and bought me a flat, sound-crushing invention like a drum head without a shell. The practice pad was designed to emit as little noise as possible. The deal was, if I played that for another year, they’d buy me a proper drum. And, the muffled disk came with lessons.
The teacher managed patiently to teach a six-year-old to hit a round bit of plastic rhythmically for several years. After an epoch, we made a long trip to Denver for a proper drum. We found an old Ludwig snare, and my parents were grossly overcharged for it. But it was beautiful. Upon unpacking and setting it up, I couldn’t hit it. It was so loud, I played with a big rubber disc over the head to avoid flinching at every beat. Later, I learned to play the Djembe, and found a new way to escape with nothing but rhythm.
When I was thirteen, I spent a couple weeks in Juarez, which sprawls just across the Mexican border. Its impoverished population of several million stares over the Rio Grande (at this point, a dark, dirty trickle in a concrete culvert) at what seems to be the most affluent area of El Paso. I met people living in houses built from pallets and tyres whose children’s teeth rotted from drinking Coca-cola because the water was not safe. I remember open sewers and flea-bitten dogs – and kids. I remember the heat. We did puppet shows for children in a square and felt pretty good about ourselves for having taken the time out of our lives to make the effort.
I spent the next two summers with the organisation that sent us there, learning that what Christians call mission has nothing to do with feeling good about yourself.
I worked at a retreat camp near Trinidad, Colorado. It was surrounded by mountains and full of people from all over the world. This was an anthropological experience, and looking back, I can’t help but think they all thought I was laughably ignorant (I think some of them did laugh, actually). I learnt a lot about Christianity there, but something about it confirmed in me the desire to be elsewhere. Not necessarily “not there” at that time, but some pull to experience the things that made these people different yet familiar.
I also learned about the majesty of worship. It is a counter-cultural thing to worship intentionally: to tell someone they are worth your time to the point of giving up all else. Maybe we’ve created our own versions in sport, career, or self-improvement. However, I think that giving up time for something more important and powerful is something we do naturally. The frightening thing about this is that it requires absolute trust, and we don’t always choose the right places to surrender.
When I was 16, after a devastating church-split and moving to Calvary Chapel Pueblo, I began saving up for a six-month discipleship course in Scotland. Throughout that time, I had been playing in the church band and working for the Solid Ground Cafe. Solid Ground was the a beautiful coffee house and kiosk at the local university. I worked at the kiosk, manned the cafe and organised promotions for live music on weekends. It was the “coolest job in the world!” as my wife said the other night when I was reminiscing about it. Imagine a 16-year old hanging out behind the bar at a cafe in a local university providing extraordinary quantities of caffeine to scholars and reading free books from the university book shop. It began my lifelong habit of espresso and conversation.
Exactly 11 days after 11 September, 2001, I flew for the first time. Nervous of the armed police but petrified of the plane, I boarded an AirCanada flight to Toronto. My affected manner of nonchalance dissolved into what can only be described as a rictus of fright as the plane took off. I had always been afraid of heights – acrophobic, I liked to say as a prattish teenager. 12 hours later, I was catching my first glimpses of a green, and inviting place. I loved Glasgow airport. I loved Glasgow car parks, shops, cafes (shit coffee and all). I found Glaswegians the friendliest people on earth. I certainly hadn’t travelled much.
Most of what I learned was by way of struggling with the system of the course. I didn’t like the doctrine, and found it difficult to be around people whose perspective was so different from mine. I fought internally to the point of tears and panic. It was a valuable series of lessons, I think. I could only learn them by coming up against my own inconsistencies and letting my foundations settle down again. Half a lifetime later, I still don’t like most of the doctrine, but tend to find peace in simple disagreement.
I did, however, meet Wendy. I had never had a girlfriend, and had never dated. I knew after several months of late-night talks and through opening up to this amazing girl that I never would. Wendy and I made plans for me to visit her house in Hertfordshire, and she made plans to fly out to the desert and experience America. It was only during my visit that we discovered there was no way we weren’t going to be together. That summer we were engaged. Through over a year of trans-Atlantic correspondence and expensive phone calls, we got to know each other more and were married at St. Paul’s in 2003. (I should point out that’s St. Paul’s church in St. Albans, and not the slightly more well-known building at the top of Ludgate hill.)
I moved to the United Kingdom in at the age of 19 to embark on a strict regime of losing my accent at Kings College London. I took the course: “English Language and Communications”, which turned out to be a degree in applied linguistics, and now hold a BA(hons) in same.
Realizing that this is now the sixth document page length of this bio, I will leave it there for now.