Our friend Mel Middleton came through town last week and gave us good cause to reflect on how we live in this world.
On our way to dinner at the Thai Garden downtown, Red Deer’s new street piano caught Mel’s eye. We told him how our friend Steven Woolrich had initiated this, deciding for his 50th birthday that it would be cool for our city to have a street piano, as he had seen elsewhere in his travels. It was a natural gesture for Steve who, as an ex-cop and expert in crime prevention, is committed to creative urban initiatives.
Mel sat down with a grin and hammered out some Let It Be and Hey Jude before we adjourned to the restaurant. There, we caught up on his daughter’s wedding, a major recent health scare and international politics.
Mel is one of those engaged and engaging individuals who has energy, insights and information to put the rest of us to shame. Mel grew up, like my wife Sandi, as an ‘MK’ (missionary kid) in East Africa. As an adult, he has lived in Africa for years and traveled back regularly, consulting for the UN, working for non-profits and typically stirring the pot. He takes it as his personal mission to keep tabs on what big corporations, governments and NGOs are doing in East Africa. In many (if not most) cases the picture is not pretty.
We adjourned to our home, where we shared more tea and piano and stories. Some of those stories are harrowing – like the abduction in Africa of members of his family – and some inspiring – like his fight to put corporate ethics on the agenda for international corporations operating in Africa.
In response to every question, Mel offers a cascade of information and perceptions, naming names and recounting history and fleshing out our vague impressions. When it comes to Africa and international gamesmanship, our opinions are based mostly on fleeting and somewhat guarded impressions from headlines and news bulletins. Having spent years on the ground in Ethiopia, Kenya and Sudan, Mel sees the whole complex weave of business, corruption, politics, religion, nationalism and tribalism that is Africa.
Listening to his tales of working to right the many wrongs he sees, we reflected on how each of us copes and responds differently to this world in which we live. Our personalities and passions find unique ways of connecting where we can, and holding the world at bay when necessary. Chatting at the kitchen table, we noted how Sandi, a psychologist, focuses on living a life of personal responsibility and helping other individuals cope.
I focus my energies on local activism through groups like ReThink Red Deer simply because that’s where I feel I can make a bit of difference. The prospect of bigger scale change overwhelms me.
Mel, though, is one of the few who takes in the big picture, and takes on the big boys, on the international stage. We asked him how he does it, how he finds the energy and persistence to work on very big problems when most of us, most of the world, looks the other way or actively impedes. Mel shrugged, talked about his faith, and admitted that it’s not easy.
We retired for the night. Mel was up at 4:30 or 5 the next morning (normal, he said, for him), checking emails and news from his laptop in our basement. At the more civilized hour of 7 or so, we shared coffee with him before he packed up and headed out.
He had to stop at the bank downtown, he said, before driving to Edmonton. “And I just might stop by and play a little more on that street piano,” he added with a twinkle in his eye.
Play on. Play on.