Following My Joy
When I was born-"long ago, when birds built their nests in old men's whiskers, and all cows drank beer," as my grandfather used to say-wanderlust and wonder found and filled me at an early age. I recall, as vividly as if it were only yesterday, awaking in my bedroom in Saginaw, Michigan, morning after morning, early in the Great Depression years, transfixed by the gentle cooing of mourning doves and the mournful sound of a far away train whistle. Where, I wondered as a five-year-old, were those birds and that train going? Wherever it was, I knew I wanted to go there, too.
But I also was pulled in other directions. I recall even earlier, when I was three, thinking about a very important old man who, my folks told me, repeatedly, was coming to see me. As I played with my blocks on the floor of the den with my back to its door one day, the room suddenly was filled with a wonderful light, and I felt a wave of warmth waft over me, and I knew, whoever he was, he had arrived. And I turned and saw a tall, thin man with silver hair and a smile that lit up the room, who strode over to me and grabbed me up in his arms, tossed me up high so easily and caught me again. I wondered if he was God, but I heard my folks telling me he was my grandpa. At that moment, they were one and the same to me. It was the beginning of my life-long learning that a loving spirit is a wonderful thing, and wanting to learn more about God, of which Grampa-Dr. Frederick McD. Harkin-was such a good example.
The seeds of my three careers were in place in my childhood. My lifelong struggle between a call to travel and adventure and a call to service was in place.
As I grew, I went to Sunday school like other kids, but somehow I became a sort of protégé of our minister at St. John's Episcopal Church. Soon I was reading a lesson in the service, and then I became an acolyte. In fact, I became the acolyte-of-choice of funeral directors, who said I had just the right kind of smile. They would slip me peppermint candies just before I led the casket down the aisle, telling me to chew them slowly and keep smiling.
But the smile left me suddenly when my parents told me they were getting divorced. Less than a week later, I left a life I didn't want to leave and went into a future I did not want to have. At thirteen, I lost my family, my home, my friends, my school, everything that meant anything to me. I was devastated. My faith wasn't broken, but, boy, was it bent. Then and there I dropped any idea of attending seminary.
While the first trauma of my life detoured me from one career path, it also taught me something that would prove important in other career changes that were yet to come: I was a survivor. I learned that even when the worst thing I thought could happen did happen, life went on. And so did I. With difficulty, I found that when one door closes, another one can open.
So what did I do about a career choice when I was thirteen? Well, I knew I loved to travel and that I loved to write. So I decided from then on I'd work to become a foreign correspondent. I knew it was easier said than done. Never mind that there were only about five hundred foreign correspondents in the world and that this kid from Saginaw, Michigan, had no reason whatsoever to believe he would become one of them. Although I did have a great uncle who became a famous journalist in Canada in the 1890s and an editor at the New York Times in the early 1900s. And an uncle was editor, an aunt was society editor, a cousin the city editor, and another uncle the circulation manager of the Mining Journal in Marquette, Michigan. Even though printers' ink was in my blood, I knew that I could dream the dream, but I also had to do the work. Nobody else was going to do it for me.
I decided to do the only thing I could do then: prepare myself thoroughly so that if opportunity came my way, I would be ready. In high school and at Kenyon, I majored in English; I studied foreign languages; and I read voraciously about foreign affairs. And I worked on every student publication at every school I attended.
Kenyon enlightened me beyond measure, giving me a deep appreciation of the humanities and life that has served me well in all my careers, as well as friendships that have lasted a lifetime. Although I was at the College only for one year-a sudden family financial crisis made it impossible to continue-Kenyon got me centered and focused for life. I simply fell in love with the place, and I've supported it financially ever since. My only regret in life is that I didn't graduate from the College.
After a four-year enlistment in the U.S. Navy, I transferred to Michigan State University, where I felt lost-the entire Kenyon student body would have fitted into one Michigan State dormitory. I majored in history, with a minor in journalism, still with the hope of becoming a foreign correspondent.
A break came when I became city editor of the Michigan State News, which was like running a small-town newspaper with a Monday through Friday circulation of twenty-one thousand. I worked at it forty hours a week, and I have the grade reports to prove it.
I also covered the Michigan legislature and became friends with the UPI bureau chief. I told him I wanted to be a foreign correspondent in Asia, to write about how newly independent nations were making their inherited colonial institutions their own. He hired me-for a job in Madison, Wisconsin. I reported there three days after graduating from Michigan State. It wasn't overseas, but I was on my way. Thus began my twenty-five-year UPI career.
To me, it was a dream job, even though I was number two in a two-man bureau, working ten-hour days. But Wisconsin was interesting politically, and I covered the legislature, the governor's office, and state party conventions. Luckily for me, the bureau chief was interested mostly in sports, hunting and fishing, so he assigned me to travel for a week with "some senator" named John F. Kennedy who ran in Wisconsin's presidential primary. I was one of six journalists who flew in the "Caroline," with Kennedy's wife, Jackie, and others from the Kennedy clan, and I had an hour-long interview with JFK back in those early days when he was seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. Not bad for a journalist only three months on the job!
Two years later, I fretted that UPI had sent me just across Lake Michigan, not overseas. With youthful impatience, I soon took a job with the Chicago Tribune. My folks thought I'd come to my senses at last. But several months later, the UPI executive for overseas operations offered me a job as UPI manager in Pakistan. Three weeks later, I was there! I was a foreign correspondent!
I spent three years in Pakistan, covering such things as Jackie Kennedy's official visit and several wars between Pakistan and India in Kashmir. When Indian Prime Minister Nehru died, I went to India to cover his funeral and stayed there for three years as UPI manager in South Asia. I was in the room with Indira Gandhi when she took the oath of office as prime minister for the first time. I interviewed the Dalai Lama at his home in exile in India. I also reported from Afghanistan, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Nepal, and Sikkim. I climbed above fifteen thousand feet in the Himalayas trying to interview a U.N. official investigating whether India or Pakistan violated a cease-fire in Kashmir (both did). I didn't get him, but what a fabulous way to fail! Other assignments took me to nearly every country in Asia.
But it wasn't all glory. I bought food from local markets so I could learn better how people lived. When I couldn't buy wheat, I knew villagers were starving. I was forever covering food riots, I survived shelling as a war reporter, and I was chased by communist mobs in Ceylon intent on shortening my life. I also came down with hepatitis, jaundice, and malaria. I finally became so sick I had to leave the area for medical reasons. And always there was the incredible heat. When I awoke in New Delhi at 3:00 a.m. and it was 105 degrees, I knew they had the hottest moon in the world. I went through cultural shock in reverse when I was transferred to Tokyo. So many healthy people, and so many consumer goods in shop windows! It took me weeks to adjust.
When I joined UPI's Washington Bureau in 1967, dreams still came true. I became a White House, State Department, and Congressional correspondent. I made most of the "shuttle diplomacy" trips with U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Best of all, I met and married my wife, Anne, the best thing that ever happened to me.
Professionally, everything began to crash when I realized UPI was going bankrupt, and I didn't want to. I had covered every president from Kennedy to Reagan and worked in thirty countries, but the dream was ending. I panicked. I hadn't searched for a job in twenty-five years. I had forgotten how. I didn't know how to do anything else. And who would hire a fifty-two-year-old? I was angry and scared. Once again, I faced losing a way of life and everything that meant anything to me.
What did I do? I prayed, fervently. And I swallowed my pride and got professional help. I learned never to leave a job voluntarily before finding another one. I learned my dream job had turned into a comfortable rut that stunted my growth. I had developed tunnel vision about my strengths and abilities. I wrote lists identifying all my talents and how they could be useful in other professions I had never considered. Discovering how many strengths I had boosted my morale when I needed to make a positive impression in interviews.
I learned to "follow my joy." I decided what fields to investigate, and whether and where I would be willing to move. I learned how to network, asking friends and acquaintances what was happening in their field and where there were vacancies. I learned the cardinal rule about never asking anyone directly for a job but asking everyone for three references. Why? There's almost never a vacancy immediately, and people hate to say no, but most people love to give advice. You'll leave them with a positive memory of the interview.
Networking took me to the U.S. Information Agency (USIA), where I had an eighteen-year career. At first I was embarrassed, because I had thought I'd never work for the federal government. However, USIA recognized my talents and it would hire older people, while newspapers were failing or merging and preferred younger people they could pay less. It wasn't a dream job, but I already had a lifetime of fulfilled dreams. I found being editor of the information wire for Europe to be interesting work, and soon I was earning vastly more money than I ever had in journalism. Not least, I also had a better home life and time for cultural events.
But something else was happening. Ever since I had returned to the United States, my spiritual journey, which began between Grampa and me so long ago, had begun to flourish again. I found an Episcopal church that actually welcomed innovation and encouraged new ways of doing and looking at things. I found spiritual and emotional health there. Once again, I plunged into every activity offered, and I was even elected to the vestry.
I soon got burned out and wondered, as Peggy Lee did in the song "Is That All There Is?" At the same time I was working at USIA, I prayed at St. Mark's for a deeper spiritual life. What followed proved to me that prayers are answered, and that you had better really want what you prayed for. Within two months, two things happened that changed my life forever.
First, out of the blue, Lilly March, whom I had known for decades, came to me at St. Mark's one Sunday and said, "John, I'm the director for the Art of Pastoral Care program. We need more men in it, and I think you would be perfect! Will you join us?" I did, and I spent a year getting hands-on experience with empowering patients to live as meaningful lives as they choose to, despite their circumstances.
Second, when my wife and I returned from vacation that summer, there was a notice in the church program that the friends of John Leary were gathering that afternoon. At St. Mark's, that meant John was terminally or seriously ill. It turned out that John, who had been free of cancer for more than five years, had it again, this time in a more aggressive form. He was forty-six. John was someone I'd always wanted to know, but because of age differences, we were never involved in the same activities. We always waved to each other across the pews. I knew if ever I was to know him, it was now or never.
I was one of two dozen people who helped John. We helped him by researching how things might be done and letting him make the decisions. Some people got his groceries and medications, others drove him to medical appointments, some got him an expedited disability retirement, and others showed him various hospices when he decided to go that way. I was lucky to be among six people he chose to do the one-on-one pastoral care visits with him. We talked about whatever issues he brought up, and we became close friends. Sometimes it was difficult to tell which of us helped the other most. Often it was emotionally draining. But to my surprise, we also had some of the best belly laughs I have ever had.
Finally, the time came when the hospice asked us to spend the night with John because he was close to death and afraid to be alone and they couldn't spare a nurse to sit with him. So I spent the last Saturday night of John's life with him at the Joseph Ritchie Hospice in Baltimore, Maryland. One thing I know for certain. The Holy Spirit joined us many times in those sessions, especially at the end. And it was present in the joy of laughter as well as the tears. Of this I have no doubt whatsoever. I cannot prove it, but neither do I feel the need to do so. The whole experience simply changed my life forever. It made me a true believer, and a dedicated pastoral-care person.
It also gave me a third career to pursue when I retired from USIA in 1998. Career counselors always say it's better to retire to something, not just from something. For the past two years, I've been a volunteer chaplain (as a layman), working in Sibley Hospital's Clinical Pastoral Care program. Like my Grampa Harkin, I work with terminally or seriously ill people, focusing on end-of-life issues-empowering them to live lives as meaningful as they care to, whatever their circumstances. I have found my ministry. It is a true calling.
Whenever I'm doing pastoral care, there is a joy deep inside me that tells me I'm in the right place, doing what I'm meant to be doing. I don't know where it will take me. But I don't need to. I simply try to live faithfully wherever I am. The pay isn't much, but the retirement benefits are out of this world!
John Barton lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife, Anne.
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