Going full circle

Below is a piece I wrote for my undergraduate university’s alumni magazine to honor my late grandmother. It was an privileged to memorialize her in this special way.


I have always loved the stretch of sidewalk between the back side of the Olen Hendrix building and the Student Center. It is not exactly the first place people list as a favorite Harding destination but, to me, it’s where so much of my story started. 

My grandmother, Lena Ruth Story Pearson (or Mimi as I knew her) would always tell me stories from “the old days” back when she was a little girl growing up in Griffithville, Arkansas, the daughter of a farmer and a store keeper. She told me about living in the first home to have a television set and the only storm shelter in town, right in the middle of tornado alley. She would tell me stories about high school and growing up during the Great Depression in rural White County. She would tell about going down the road to school at “the College.” 

I remember the day I told her I had decided to attend Harding University. She smiled so big, pride welling up in her face. She was proud to be the grandmother of a third-generation Harding student. 

She would always tell me about being at Harding College during the war years. She started as a freshman in 1945, lived in Godden Hall, and studied to be a school teacher. I asked her once if she was in a social club; she replied “Oh it was Tau somethin’.”

After one year of college, in 1946, she was asked to teach grades first to 12th in a one-room schoolhouse in her hometown of Griffithville. She spent her first paycheck on a pair of roller skates, her favorite activity. 

She returned to Harding when the war ended and all “the boys” came back.

My grandmother loved being active. She played basketball and volleyball. But I think she always had an affection for tennis, at least after a fateful meeting one day at Harding. 

I had always known that my grandparents met at Harding, but I am embarrassed to say that I didn’t know the whole story until quite recently. My grandmother didn’t talk about my grandfather, Charles Pearson, I think because I never knew him. He died in 1983, well before I was born, and I think talking about him made her sad. But I, a young public relations student in the middle of learning how to do in-person interviews, decided to ask. “Mimi, how did you and grandpa Charles meet?”

My grandparents met at that stretch of sidewalk between the back side of Olen Hendrix and the Student Center back when it was tennis courts. My grandmother and two friends were at the courts and wanted to play doubles. Right at the moment they were looking for a fourth player, Charles Pearson, a recent WWII coast guard veteran, walked out of his house across the street where the Student Center and McInteer buildings are now. They yelled over at him, “Want to play doubles?” He agreed. The Pearsons married about a year later and started life together. Little did Lena Ruth Story and Charles Pearson know that seven decades later their grandson would walk over that space almost daily for four years. 

I was recently on that stretch of sidewalk. I was back in Searcy for my grandmother’s funeral, and as I was driving through campus, I couldn’t help myself but go there for a moment and remember what took place in that space 70 years ago. In that moment, reflecting on my grandmother’s life as a whole, I realized that so much of what she learned from her time at Harding, I too had learned in mine. 

Every time I would go to see her, she would ask me two things: “Well Grant, how’re you doin’? Where’d you go to church last Sunday?” Always the same, always in quick succession. In my adolescence and even in early adulthood I found these questions a little annoying. Maybe it was because she always asked them. Or maybe it was because I was embarrassed to answer them. But regardless of my answer, her response was always the same: “Well God loves you, ya hear. And so do I.” It took me a while to realize why she always asked those questions, but it was because she cared for me — for my personal well-being just as much as my spiritual welfare. 

In the same way my grandmother asked me how I was doing personally and spiritually, my Harding experience also provided that for me. She nurtured me to be the best possible version of myself, and as a student, I was constantly encouraged to renew and strengthen my being. She constantly built me up and encouraged my passions and dreams. In the same way my peers and professors gave me confidence to accomplish whatever I set out to do.

I cannot even begin to count the number of times I passed over that stretch of sidewalk during my four years at Harding. Looking back on it now, each time was as if my soul intersected with those of my grandparents. We three all lived very different lives, separated by seven decades, but the spirit of our experience remains the same. I can hardly walk in front of the Student Center without being transported back in my mind to the late 1940s, seeing Lena on the courts and Charles on the sidewalk opposite, at that serendipitous moment of meeting.

It is so incredibly important that we share these stories. They connect us to a time long past but also to a space that is all too familiar and provide a link to “the old days” but make their yesterday relevant in our today. They make the mundane something extraordinary. Looking into the past is 20/20 — it’s all in plain sight. We can clearly see how God worked in those moments leading two souls to a divine meeting. These stories have power to enrich our lives and strengthen our faith, but first we have to ask to hear them, because if we don’t, they will fade away. Knowing the presence of his plan can lead us to those moments where it all comes back around again, where so much of our lives, and lives before ours, make sense. 

What will lead you full circle? What will be your concrete sidewalk?

Sicily

I wrote this little bit a while ago for a newsletter I curated during my time in Italy. I was thinking back on some memories of a past life. This reminds me of my favorite part of Italy and one of the reasons it will also keep a piece of my soul.


People always ask me what my favorite place to visit in Italy is and after I say the obvious pastry shop and gelateria down the street and around the corner, I always say Sicily. This triangle-shaped island, roughly the same size as the state of Vermont, is one of those rare places in the world that has progressed into the modern era but is still intimately attached to its ancient heritage. Millennia-old myths and stories of heroes, monsters, gods, Titans, and kings weave their way into the cultural fabric of this place. They are even still used to explain natural phenomena, though in a tongue-in-cheek way.  Sicily has been conquered and reconquered countless times by outside powers but has retained a bit of each culture that has called it home. For me, Sicily is a sensory overload but in the best way possible.

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 When I visit a new place I love to observe the architecture. It can tell you so much about a place: it’s history, it’s values, it’s culture. Simply walking down the street in Palermo is like unraveling a scroll of history right before you! Modern-day Sicilians may live in a post-war apartment building constructed partially on an ancient Greek theatre, adjacent to a baroque style palace and across the street from a medieval Arabesque, former-mosque but re-purposed as a Catholic church. And not to mention the back alleyway that was once a Roman road, still dotted with ancient paving stones. Sicilians will take these things in all at once, without even blinking and continue on to the corner to buy fresh artichokes from their neighbor, who is also a cousin. That’s how things are here, so many things squished together and mixed up like a kaleidoscope but with each element falling perfectly into place, as if the whole thing was planned thousands of years ago.

 Sicily is a land with so much to offer. You could spend an entire semester on this island and still not see and experience everything it has to give. Our 5-day trip to Sicily begins with a 12-hour night train from Florence to the toe-tip region of Italy called Calabria. There we wipe the sleep from our eyes and take in not only a whole new topography from Tuscany, but also what seems like a totally different culture from northern Italy.

Our first stop are the Riace Bronzes, two priceless and breathtaking ancient Greek works in bronze. These sculptures were found off the coast of Calabria in the sea floor by an amateur diver and are now displayed in the regional museum of Reggio Calabria. After our visit with the Bronzes, we board a ferry-boat to cross the Straits of Messina to Sicily. Once on Sicily, we go by bus to the town of Taormina to visit the incredibly well preserved Greco-Roman theatre there, beautifully perched on the cliff-side with a spectacular view of Mt. Etna. After Taormina, we head through the center of the island towards Agrigento but we stop at the Villa Casale in between where we not only enjoy some of the best preserved Roman mosaics in the world but get to see them in their original context, the monumental villa that contains them. The Valley of the Temples at Agrigento is often a highlight for students. The ancient Greek temples were built in a line along a natural cliff-line that also doubled as natural protection. We visit the temples and walk through internationally renowned nature park that they are inside of. After visiting the temples we spend a relaxing afternoon at the Scala dei Turchi, a natural rock formation that dramatically juts out of the cliff side. The next day we bus to Monreale and Palermo where we visit several sites together before boarding an overnight ferry bound for Naples.

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 Our Sicily trip is a whirlwind with so much to take in and see but we don’t even scratch the surface of what the whole island has to offer. I always encourage students to put it on their list of places to revisit someday. Sicily is a place of incredible abundance filled with unparalleled wonder and beauty, one just has to make the decision to go, which will not disappoint.

 








To the Mountains We Went

I wrote this for a newsletter I curated during my time living and working in Italy.


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Every Spring HUF semester packs up and heads to Abetone, Italy in the Apuan Alp mountains at the northern edge of Tuscany for a ski trip. This semester, the trip was planned for about 10 days into the program. But even before the group first arrived in Florence, the ski trip looked as if it were going to dissolve away.

Before the students arrived this semester, Abetone was having an unseasonably warm winter. There was a snow base but it was melting fast with the rains that started to fall just a few days before our trip.

Just two days before we were supposed to leave, things did not look good. But we decided to wait until the very last minute to call it off. So, by noon the day before our 6 AM departure, a decision was going to be made.

Robbie called our friend and ski-gear renter Maurizio to get the latest weather update. We were all but certain we knew what the answer would be but to our surprise, our friend from the mountains called with good news. It had started snowing overnight and with no clear end in sight, the slopes would be covered the next day, ready for our first runs down the mountain. So with 20 centimeters of freshly fallen powder, to the mountains we went.

I am by no means an experienced or expert skier, I had only been once before this trip and I had told myself, “Well, that was fun (and painful), glad I tried, but never again.” I sort of checked skiing off my bucket list of things to try in my life and retired my ski socks along with the memory of many bruises.

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I had tried skiing once. I decided I wasn’t good at it and thought I would never do it again. But that’s not the right outlook to have for skiing. After thinking about it some more, I had a few realizations. Everyone falls down. Everyone face-plants into the snow. And everyone somehow accidentally and unintentionally ends up going down the mountain backward. It’s like riding a bike: the more you try, the better you get. But you don’t get any better without making a few mistakes along the way. So with this new found perspective, I strapped two fiberglass boards once again to my feet and slid over the mountain’s icy edge.

In my life so far I’ve learned that sometimes you have to just throw yourself over the edge of a mountain and figure things out on the way down, metaphorically speaking of course. The greatest lessons I’ve learned have been while doing, not while watching.

And I think that’s what this whole study abroad experience is about: plunging headfirst into an entirely new place and culture and figuring it all out along the way. There is no guidebook or website or travel blog that can fully prepare someone to experience a brand new way of life and thinking. Yes, we may fall down and icy patches will be along the way but we have to pick ourselves up, learn from the problems and bumps in the road and keep going on down the trail. Just like in skiing: the more times you try, the more you will learn.

We had three great days on the mountain. I fell. But I got up and I learned and I am no longer as afraid to slide down a mountain as I was before.

Today, the students leave for their first independent travel experience. In the same way, I went off the edge of a mountain, they are leaping from the relative comfort of our home in Florence and into the foggy unknown of traveling to unfamiliar places. It is inevitable: things will not go exactly as planned and problems will happen. But that is a part of the learning experience. Just like I put two skis on my feet and went for it, they too have to leap headfirst and learn along the way.

I am so excited to see what the students learn from this travel experience. I can’t fully put it into words but somehow traveling changes us. I guess it’s one of those “you have to do it, to understand it” kind of things

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A cliché

I’ve always been a bit scared to repost this famous quote by St. Augustinus, partly because I haven’t taken a photo that I think can properly accompany such a hefty quote and also partly because it has become a bit of a travel cliché to me.

But nonetheless I do believe it’s true. I in no way have seen an exhaustive amount of the world. But I have seen few places, each adding something to my book. Some places add entire volumes worth of lessons learned and information gathered. Some only add a page. And some still add only just a singular line to my book.

But even a single line can still speak volumes about a place.

And I don’t think of this quote’s mention of “travel” necessarily as a place with an exotic destination. Sometimes simply going to a different part of your hometown can give you a travel-blogger worthy experience.

No matter where we go, we should always look for a take-away. Whether it’s travel within our own city, state or country; there is always something to be learned. We must be open to the idea of experiencing what is right in front of us.

So in a metaphysical sense: the world is a book, and those who do not travel (out of themselves) read only one page.

 
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