Nathan is a big and funny white American, quoted – his own description, continued with statement: “America is still the country for white. The system is marginalizing people who are different.” Nathan says that he was living an american cliche, waiting tables – a perfect job for a lazy american. He smoked a lot of pot too, and got fired from 15 different jobs. Until one day when he and his then girlfriend gave away their first son for adoption. Today Nathan is 36 and he has just made it to the community college a year ago, with the plans of getting a law degree too. When asked what made his mind tuned for studies at this age, he stopped smiling for a second, made an obvious internal mental dive to the roots of the reasons, and emerged with an answer: “I want my kid to be proud of me”.
We met in Seattle’s “U-Dab” (a University of Washington) area, at an Indian “Eat all you can” cafe. Nathan has arrived earlier and was waiting for us at a corner table, checking up on his phone: “Facebook is a genetically modified refrigerator: you keep checking up on it every five minutes, if anything is supposed to appear in there”, he laughed.
He looked handsome to me. A very tall caucasian type man, with a wide smile, low voice and irresistible wit and humour. He obviously knows how to charm and enjoys doing that. Talking to him is easy, talking to him is deep, talking to him is funny. He is sincere. I know this type of sincerity which comes from the long battles of working with yourself, admitting truths, so you achieve a certain level of self-awareness and self-achievements, with nothing to hide. And that’s exhilarating.
The “choose your battles” lessons came in pretty hard and late for Nathan. It took years of travels, heart-breaking experiences, heart-mending exercises, a constant challenge of an inability of loving self.
Nathan was born in New Hampshire, where he lived carefree, without much consideration or thinking about the meaning. A series of events brought him to the point of life now where he is seriously committed to change, a calling, as he puts it. A calling of his life now is helping reconstruct the society of poor in Haiti, which even made him starting a college at this age, after years of waiting tables.
Ready for the lessons?
Lesson #1: You have to know the rules in order to break them.
“Now I am interested in being at the table, not waiting it. Being at the table of meaningful change and advocacy is hard without having a degree. I have enough confidence in who I am and being able to create my own luck. But now I am interested in fortifying that luck, taking it to another level, with the gravitas that degree brings to you, with networking that happens in the schools, internships, the feet in the door that you get, which you cannot get with the youtube video to watch or a book to read. That is something which happens over time, by virtue of being involved in these communities. That is the investment I am willing to make.” – passionately explains Nathan.
“I learned a long time ago from the movie “Armageddon” with Bruce Willis that if you are trying to shoot a meteorite that is hurtling towards Earth you can’t just throw a nuke at it, you have to drill into the middle and drop a nuke down to the middle.” – jokes Nathan, continuing seriously: “I am interested in getting into the middle of some of these apparatus of disfunction. And if it is built by people like me, then I can fucking unbuild it, and to transform it, rebuild it together with Haitians. I want to figure out what my part of play is.”
“I am married to Haiti”, – says Nathan explaining further why he is so serious about bringing change to the country. “I was there on the second day as the earthquake hit. Since then going back and forth.”
“Going there, being there after the earthquake, seeing that: level of destruction and death, and nobody knows how many people eventually died – there were dump tracks of bodies buried right across the city without any identification. There was no infrastructure to take care of dead people, and it became a health threatening issue. Even if there was an infrastructure it was gone, because of the earthquake. So people became numb of it, just passing by those screaming kids in pain, decomposing bodies, the smell was nothing I would ever again imagine being around something like that.”
“Haiti is a prime example of population who just sort of expects, there is a grown culture of dependency, it’s been happening generations. There are billions of aid dollars flowing from western countries to Haiti.”
“That way of being with people was my way to find my way into the human rights, advocacy to fight for those people. I want to have that passion coupled with an understanding of policy: why that infrastructure failed those people so badly.”
Lesson #2: Two things you can hate: the yankees and injustice.
“Beth and I had a son we gave him out for adoption – that absolutely had an effect on me – catapulted me.” – Nathan starts digging his personal story, to connect the dots in the net of the events which influenced his choices.
“We met and there was 3 months of courtship, she was virgin and she was going to Indonesia to be a missionary. She was from that very strict Evangelical Christian community, where you can be very incubated, where you don’t know who your neighbours are. She has got her first job at the restaurant, a place with one of everybody. Because she was such a naturally social person, a lot of people were drawn to her, so was I. We went out to talk about God… and … had our first child. She was in that transitional mode from the evangelical community and she was pretty raw, so the choices were: to be married, or be a single parent or choose adoption. We chose adoption and went through that together. That is harder than going to Haiti after the earthquake. It fucked me up.” – Nathan laments.
It was clearly a “life-changing” experience for Nathan if you will. After years of living in the States he decides to travel the World. Soon after leaving Beth realized that she was expecting a second child… and by the time Nathan returned they have decided to get married. Clearly there were meant to be in partnership. But the marriage did not work. Now they have a son, Miles, 7, who has developed high-function autism.
“Miles is my favourite person, my best friend by far,” warmingly says Nathan, “He is awesome, he is into dance, so I teach him how to dance to punk music. I put up Sex Pistols and we just start running into each other. He loves it.”
“I told my son that there are two things that he can really hate, not the shoes, but two things you buddy can hate: the yankees and injustice.” It is now Nathan’s turn to provide for life lessons for his son.
Lesson #3: Do your homework.
“I have been into the idea of doing something for people. In my trip back in 2006 I went to India, Tanzania, Nepal, and other poor countries and I took to it pretty easily. I wanted to help, but I did not have a skill, I was just hanging out around poverty. It was when I thought, that I want to go back to school.”
“School has given me the way to being who I am. There was a little bit of stigma attached to me because I was so lazy for so long, that maybe I am not the most dependable person, maybe I am not the person that you call when the things go down. But I have really changed.”
“Now I am surrounded by all those people that only see me as a hard worker who is getting really good grades, who is being a leader, who is being also funny and charming, a side kick to the real story – now people come up to me when they don’t know what’s going on in the class, and that was not who I was for a good long time.”
“I do my homework, which I never did when I was in a high school, now I understand how people learn! It’s not a brain surgery.”
Lesson #4: A calling – See your potential in the way you never could
Nathan is also a singer, and an actor too, which he says is one of his favourite feelings to be on the stage to perform and kill it. And it is still nothing like being with poor people, and being part of no matter how small alleviating the level of suffering he confesses:
“It’s better than anything what I’ve ever experienced. Christians call it a “calling”. It’s about understanding the connectedness that exists between all people and how easily you can be in that person’s shoes.”
“I have a lot of friends who certainly are not going to spend their life working to eradicate poverty. In fact most of my friends in jobs that they hate,” he takes on the reasoning of the calling, but he also sees other perspectives on that:
“Most people have a truth to what their passion is. But I think there is a lot of what is built into society what pushes people away from what our passions are, including responsibilities. A lot of people who do not follow their passions are ended up having really legitimate reasons. A medical field is a perfect example: if you have a partner and you’ve been together for 5 – 10 years and that person develops a cancer, and it’s on you to provide for the family, you can’t follow your dream of being a singer or painter, the way you maybe should or wanted to or could have, and that is incredibly admirable.
“Our parents in their time picked the “lane”, they had to do one job for all their life. There were such rigid expectations for so long. Relatively this is all new: people to travel the World?! 50 years ago it just did not happen. And now we have these opportunities. All that of course create complexity in who we are, in what we are able to do, and they way we are going to do it.”
“Now I feel happy, but I do not feel satisfied. I am not there yet. That is relatively a newish emotion to me, because before I was pretty happy to do nothing. Now I am in a place where I could see my potential in a way I never could. A lot more confidence, affirmed that if I work hard, and all this time that I’ve spent learning, and going through all those experiences is now paying off. The more that happens, every day that happens.”
Lesson #5: Love yourself fully. How?
We keep talking about the reasoning, the choices, the “why’s”, where the conversation happen to narrow down to love. Towards yourself. And I have a feeling that we are digging gold here.
“There are still a lot of ways in which I hate myself,” Nathan says blatantly.
“The most scary thing is my inability to love myself. I spend a good hour at night, probably also during the day, in my head thinking I shouldn’t eat this, I should do that, how I am spending my time, and how I can do it better. Inability to love myself and to get stunt on all the achievements is the scariest thing for me.”
“If I knew I could pay down money on the ability to love myself better, that would make it so much easier, cause at least that would be a payment every month, a deposit money that would eventually be gone and I would love myself fully, the way I deserve.”
“What it takes to love yourself fully?!” I ask as if in good ignorance.
“Pff!” blasts Nathan “If you could figure that out in this blog!” he laughs hysterically “Then you email me!”
“I am on my way to loving myself with all the choices I make” Nathan continues now seriously “I am in a middle of that journey. I will get to that point: to spend not 2 hours, but 20 minutes in healthy criticism. Other than that I have confidence. Even for my son, I don’t know how but I feel that he is going to be OK. I’m doing well in school and I know that I will be OK.” he concludes.
We had to finish the 2 hours conversation because of the running time for me leaving Seattle in few hours, but I wished we could have continued. The life lessons come with price. Studying back Nathan’s lessons as I have frivolously called them, I tried to evaluate which one of them came with bigger “price tag”? So is this story more about courage to start off college at 35? Or is it about giving away a kid for adoption? Or maybe raising an autistic kid? Or a calling to commit your life to help the poor people? To me they all stream into a genuine ability of a person to reflect on self, not being hammered by the lessons, but taking them as steps on the staircase elevating one to being true about who you are, about discovering the potential you could never see before and being proud of discovering new heights of who you can be, and eventually seeing the difference you can really make to the world, your calling. So priceless. What it takes? Maybe a 20 minutes of healthy criticism.
Larissa Pak for 30UP.org
Seattle, USA, March 31 2014