this is me in grade nine, baby


My friend, Mia, responded to my post, “re-member, then” with this comment and quote:

Your post made me think of a James Hillman quote – “our lives my be determined less by our childhood than by the way we have learned to imagine our childhoods”.

James Hillman is a new name to me, but he’s on to something.

Mia and I were a part of a group of folks who spent time growing up in Nairobi, Kenya and all attending Nairobi International School (now International School of Kenya). All of us are what they call “third culture kids“: people born in one culture, raised in another, and belonging to neither. Two years ago, thanks to the tenacity of our friend Martha, we all got back together after not seeing each other for thirty years. The reunion was full of healing for us all. I think it was one of the few times any of us had been in a room where everyone understood us. We are getting back together again this summer.

The over arching self-image of my adolescence that lives in my memory is I was a short, fat kid. Now, as an almost-fifty-year-old who struggles with my weight, I have often viewed my battle of the bulge as a life long war because I’ve always been chubby. I grew six inches taller in college, but I never got over feeling fat.

After we got back from our gathering, Martha sent my a picture she took of me in ninth grade. I remember her taking the picture. I am sitting in an armchair with one leg crossed over the other. I have on a sports coat, a pink shirt, a turquoise patterned tie that’s about nine inches wide across the bottom, and red socks.

Here’s the thing: I’m not fat in the picture.

It’s right there in all it’s Polaroid reality. I was a normal sized kid. I was short, but I wasn’t fat. Yet, somehow, the way I learned to imagine my childhood led me to grow up with a different picture in my brain.

In tenth grade, my family was on leave from the mission field and we lived in Fort Worth, Texas and I went to Paschal High School, my sixth school in ten years. My youth minister at University Baptist Church was a guy named Steve Cloud. He was everything I was not: athletic, tall, handsome, together. I was (felt) short, fat, and completely out of place. I can remember sitting on the edge of my bed at 3362 Cordone, looking in the mirror, and wishing I could be anyone else but me.

One day after school, I went by the church to see Steve. He called me “Flash.” He suggested we go out and shoot some baskets on the church parking lot. I am the world’s worst basketball player, but I went with him. One of my lame two-handed set shots missed everything and the ball rolled across the parking lot.

“You get it,” I said disgustedly.

I can still see him walking across, picking up the ball, and walking back toward me with the ball on his hip. He put his arm around me and we turned to go back to his office.

“Flash,” he said, “One day Trish and I are going to have a kid and I hope he turns out exactly like you.

That day, Steve gave me a way to imagine myself that helped me live through high school.

One of the images of my childhood that is hardest for me to shake is that love is earned. Feeling worthy of love has never come easily for me. As I have said before, one of my deepest fears is that I don’t belong. In both my head and heart, I can hear the voices of those, from Ginger on down the line, who love me deeply. I know I am loved and the imaginings of my childhood that Hillman points to tell me it’s all conditional because I haven’t done enough.

Then someone else left another e.e. cummings poem in the comments:

out of the lie of no
rises the truth of yes

I wonder sometimes what might have happened if Steve had not said that to me. But he did. In that brief moment on the parking lot the truth of yes found a foothold and hung on for my dear life, giving me a chance to grow into a different image of grace, love, and hope.

This past weekend marked seventeen years since Ginger and I met. I have been with her longer than I lived in Africa. I know most of what I know of grace and love because of the way she incarnates it to me. If life was about getting what you earned, I would not be lying next to her at night. She continues to give me new eyes with which to see myself.

And I need her to keep doing it because, Polaroid or no, the fat kid just won’t go away.



  1. Wandered over from rlp, and what a delight to find, after skulking about, another SoBap-turned-UCCer, and a fellow M.K. at that! (my parents were Southern Baptist missionaries in Paraguay for 16 years. A couple of years ago I shook the dust of the Bible Belt off my heels, hightailed it for Chicago and am currently an M.Div student at a UCC seminary). Anyway, just wanted to say hi.

  2. I had that same experience a few years ago; I found a picture of me in academy and was stunned to see how not-fat I was.

    It made me wonder what sort of things I’m mispercieving right now, that 15 or 20 years will make clearer. It also made me think about what sort of things I’ll wish I had done at the age I am, when I look back on this time when I’m older.

    I thought about what’s important to me on a long-term scale, and am starting to try to balance that against short term or immediate rewards. Would I really rather have that extra dollop of sour cream? (Many times, the answer is yes. But at least now I’m thinking about it.)

    Thanks for creating the blog, by the way. I love the way you write, especially when you post recipes I can’t resist trying! First on my list is either those black eyed pea patties, or the curried squash soup. I can’t decide, maybe I’ll make them both!

    – taerin

  3. I like the tck term – it sort of gives a picture of the experience of all of us mk/military- or oil-brat internationals. …because really, tck is better than “dork,” right, which is how it sort of worked itself out at the time. I’m a military brat, too, from nowhere, and I started cooking in college as a comfort measure.

    I strongly favor Cajun and Southwestern cooking, probably as a way of emphasizing the few roots I’ve put down in locations over the years.

    I wonder if the love for cooking is something that a lot of tck’s find their way into – food is a portable tradition, and you can use the type of food you make to declare an identity.

  4. I can identify with your childhood self image. My parents consantly told us we were fat, encouraged people to use their nicknames for us, Miss Piggy and Fat Boy. I am amazed when I see pictures some 30 yrs old that show us as robust normal kids. We are both on the plus side now but how much of that is due to what we were told back when we believed our parents were the source of all knowledge.

    And while we never left the US, at 9 and 7 yrs old we moved into the middle of an Amish community where we never felt a part of their world while living in the middle of it.

    For me it took a name change and 1,200 mile move to become someone I liked, who felt loved and accepted. I rarely look back.

  5. Milton,

    Your observation that “One of the images of my childhood that is hardest for me to shake is that love is earned,” and your observations that follow are eloquent. I think all of us wrestle with whether salvation is by works or by grace from time to time. But some of us wrestle with it more than others.

    I had to quote you here:

    Thank you.

  6. Hey man, good stuff and congrats on 17 years. Your wife is an amazing woman! If she loves you…well hell a guy could pretty much live happy with only that, right?

    And I have the Bare Naked Ladies CD with “this is me in grade nine” on it. Awesome song. My favorite though is “Hello City.”

    Not that any of that had anything to do with anything you said in this post.

    love you,

  7. Very pleased about the referral to this site from RLP. Love to see the connection to cooking and food. I vividly remember my mom commenting on my weight as soon as puberty and curves arrived. The feeling of being fat has never left. Now as a middle-age chubby woman I am amazed to admit to myself that I was duped by the lie–at 5’7″ and 125# I was anything but overweight. btw: my husband will be interested in your comments about being a missionary kid. We’ve had many conversations about his experience of growing up without a clear sense of culture. Very difficult to him to feel that other people “get it”. Looking forward to more postings from you.

  8. Hello Milton,

    I left that comment about James Hillman but I’ve never met you. I’m a “Mia” that lives in upstate NY and found your site via RLP. Sorry for the confusion – I should’ve mentioned that you did not know me personally.

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