Wassail Wassail!

My father once told me this is something family members of the generation preceding him would say around Christmas time. I do not know its full origins but I assume it has something to do with the traditional mulled ale drink with the same name. I bring this up for two reasons:

1. It is Christmas (duh), and

2. I have discovered Jamaica's equivalent: a beverage called sorrel that I will explain shortly.


But first, some background.


Surprises have awaited me around every corner since arriving. Everything from the local dialect and the varied tasks I have taken on, to the food, local customs, and the wide range of initiatives and programs these missionary priests support have all been things I never expected. When Bishop Clarke encouraged me to come volunteer in Jamaica and help build houses for the poor twenty years ago, never would I have thought my time as a volunteer would look at all like it has.


I certainly never expected to brush off my sign language skills to communicate with deaf students. But that is exactly what I did two days ago when I joined Fr. Anthony to visit St. Christopher’s School for the Deaf in Browns Town, Jamaica. Browns Town is located toward the northern coast of the island. We traveled from the south coast and followed a series of treacherous roads that wound their way around mountains and valleys to the point it almost felt like a legitimate roller coaster ride. I will even admit to a bit of car sickness.


Fr. Anthony sits on the school’s Board of Directors and was invited up to Browns Town for a meeting and the group’s holiday lunch. I was excited to see a new corner of the island, if not a little nervous about the degree to which my sign language skills have deteriorated. I was not even sure if we would be speaking the same language. When I explored becoming a sign language interpreter a few years back, I learned sign language is not universal. For example, the sign for “culture” in American Sign Language is the sign for “mother” in Pakistani Sign Language. Fortunately, Jamaicans use ASL so I was not completely lost, but I was far from fluent. Upon arriving and being introduced, I carried on a conversation with a group of students for about 20 minutes. Much like my experience with Patois, there were moments of success and utter failure. Still, I enjoyed the exchange.

Some of the students I had the pleasure of signing with at St. Christopher's.

The encounter got me to thinking about people living with disabilities in developing countries, or at least in countries without provisions similar to the Americans With Disabilities Act. In short, the ADA increases the participation in society of those who would otherwise be sidelined. Jamaica has a council dedicated to promoting people with disabilities but as far as I can tell, no formal law around it. As such, students like the ones I met might struggle to put their fullest abilities forward in society, which seems odd to me a predominately Christian country since it was Christ who warned us about ignoring “the least of these.”


Just after midday we joined some of the school’s faculty and board members for a Christmas lunch. It was there that I met one of the most memorable people since arriving. Her name is Norma Segree, but everyone just calls her “Miss Norms.” She is a pillar of the community with a long life in politics (local and national) and education. She is an elderly woman with a mind as sharp as a razor and she does not suffer fools lightly. She was quiet at first, not for a lack of something to say but rather to simply observe the environment and those there. Once she did begin speaking, she held court and the room listened attentively. She touched on issues at the school, Jamaican politics, and recalled various stories from her career as a public servant. I was seated close to her and she began asking about why I am here and what I am doing. I felt like my answers would determine whether or not she would send me packing. It is clear she is a pillar of the community and an example of how one can lead a prolific life of public service without necessarily becoming a household name. I am sure every country has thousands of dedicated public servants toiling away with varying degrees of success but hardly any degree of recognition and I wonder why we do not do more to encourage people to dedicating their lives to such work. I understand it can be terribly inefficient. Sloths and glaciers can be faster and nimbler. Still, when you consider the end it serves, public service seems like it could be a great use of one’s talents. Of course, I am not in public service so I will wait for someone who is to provide a counterpoint.


As I watched Miss Norms work the conversation, I kept thinking back to my stop home in New England prior to coming here. I went to see my grandmother who has been struggling with dementia for a few years now. She is not the feisty Italian woman full of piss and vinegar I remember. In fact, had I not been there with my parents and my uncle, she likely would not have known who I was. She asked to be caught up on my life but every time I stopped, she asked me my age and my height. Over and over.


There is an obvious sadness in this. Even though she sat next to me, I have effectively lost my last grandparent. My dad’s father passed when I was three, his mother a decade later. My mom’s father passed in 2000. I add all of this to the fact I live halfway across the country (my current situation not withstanding) and that I visit home much less frequently than I used to.


All of this has me thinking about the finality of life, how I am happy I have chosen to overhaul my life while I can and seek to live with intention so as to not waste opportunities or fail to take a risk. I have yet to experience some of the same milestones many of my contemporaries have celebrated like marriage and children. I am not avoiding them; things simply have not worked out that way for me. But learning about Miss Norms and connecting it to the stark realization of life’s finiteness has me focusing (read: worried) on whether or not I will reach my fullest potential in the short timespan I have been given. In some ways I feel I simply bob along assuming life’s well is inexhaustible, and that I might make different choices had I a more pervasive awareness that it will run dry eventually. Food for thought as I head into the holidays and continue this adventure.


Despite these rather heavy thoughts, our lunch at St. Christopher’s continued and the jokes flowed as freely as the sorrel, a juice from a perennial herb bearing the same name. It is tangy and absolutely delicious. At this time of year, it is often “made proper” with your spirit of choice. While the lunch did not include this festive addition, a holiday event back in Bull Savannah a few nights later did. For the record, sorrel mixed with a bit of Appleton Estate’s 12 Year rum is a wonderful concoction that you must try at some time in your life.


It is a bit strange celebrating Christmas in a tropical setting. The last time I sang Christmas carols in shorts was probably when I was a kid in San Diego. This time of year typically finds me layered in clothes and white as a ghost. Jamaica sits around 17 degrees north of the equator. The amount of daylight does not change much – almost an even split of 12 hours of daylight and nighttime. Having a tan in December is new for me. It is also odd seeing the traditional Christmas creche surrounded by palm trees and tropical flowers. “Christmas in July” and all.


The school is closed for the holiday and yesterday the church hosted its annual Christmas dinner, an all-day picnic complete with a talent show. The food preparation was astounding. The night before, a handful of women dismantled and seasoned hundreds of pounds of food to be cooked the next day. I, along with the other volunteers and a few students, helped set up tables, chairs, and decorations. Preparing the event was quite a community event, not unlike other church-based events I have been a part of. These events tend to draw “the usuals,” folks invested in the community who can be relied upon for setup, clean up, and any manner of task or favor that needs accomplishing.

The robust cooking operation ahead of St. Vincent's Christmas dinner.

The next morning, well before I woke up, the same small group of women was behind the school with cooking fires blazing, deftly moving around hundreds of pounds of chicken, ham, and goat. Goat is like steak her, but you do not simply go to the store and buy it. When an important event comes around, someone picks out the animal and, after it is killed and cut up, it is delivered closer to the actual event. But it is not just the meat that is delivered. The entire goat comes with it because you may want spare parts for something like “Mannish Water,” a local stew whose flavor is apparently derived from the remainder of the slaughtered animal. And yes, the church’s Christmas event included this local soup. I tried it and it would go nicely with the aforementioned sorrel and rum.


With that, I head back to New England tomorrow for Christmas and New Year’s. I spoke with Monsignor Mike the other day and he has confirmed I am welcome to come back for the second half of the school year and continue helping where I can. I am very happy about that. This experience is impacting me, regardless of whether or not I glean anything from it regarding a higher and better use of my talents. I cannot fully put it into words at the moment, but I can sense something important is happening. I want to take that to a more definite conclusion and intend to spend my beak reflecting on it – and on what I want to do with this space. It started out as a means of tracking a life-changing decision and its aftermath, and to share any learning or wisdom from having made it. I feel I was on that path, but now fear this is devolving into little more than a travelogue with no real point. Maybe some time away from it all will help hash that out.


In the meantime, thank you all for continuing to follow this blog. I appreciate your emails, comments, and other reminders that you are out there and, in a sense, following this path with me. I am excited to share it with you. Until the next entry, have a great Christmas and a very happy and healthy New Year.


Wassail Wassail!

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© 2020 by Mark Konold