I have just spent my 50th birthday with a group of strangers in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Well, most of them were strangers until two days ago, but by the time of my birthday on Saturday/Sunday (depending on which time zone you followed), most of them had become close friends.
The occasion was an “International Dialogue for Thoughtleaders in Journalism”, hosted by Images & Voices of Hope, an organisation that looks at the impact of public storytelling and public message making on society. It was hosted at the Seasons Centre for Renewal at the Fetzer Institute in Kalamazoo, one of the most restive places I have ever visited.
There were only 24 of us, each having made his or her mark in journalism in some way or other, including Pulitzer Prize winners and Nieman or Poynter Institute fellows, among many others. The participants have their roots in diverse places such as Trinidad and Tobago, Puerto Rico, Vietnam, Canada, India, Japan and, of course, the United States.
This was the third meeting of the group and the first that I attended, but I have had contact with various people in Images & Voices of Hope since 2003 when I attended one of their dialogues at Peace Village in New York State. In October 2006, I attended another dialogue at Peace Village where I received their Award of Appreciation for Print Media (for Media that Transforms the Public Space) in recognition of the “One City, Many Cultures” project that I initiated at theCape Times.
I have always supported their vision of creating a better world through the use of the media. So when the invitation came for me to attend this conference, I had no hesitation.
I immediately accepted, and had to ask my daughter to postpone 50th birthday celebration that they were planning for me. I once attended a 50th birthday party which was held when the birthday boy (if that is politically correct term) turned 51, so I did not think this was a problem.
I was nervous, because turning 50 is supposed to be a big deal and you are supposed to spend it with your family and closest friends. Even though, I must admit, I felt more nervous about turning 40 than I am about turning 50. Maybe part of it has to do with the fact that I’m much more comfortable in my skin at the age of 50 than I was when I turned 40.
But from the minute I met the conference organiser, who fetched me at Grand Rapids’ Gerald Ford International Airport, I knew that I had made the correct decision to sacrifice a birthday at home for a birthday with strangers.
The welcome I received on Thursday night, along with the four other people who attended for the first time, made me feel at home immediately. And over the course of Thursday night, Friday and Saturday, we discussed our concerns about an industry which all of us love and we shared some very intimate and special insights.
We talked about our values and intentions in journalism and we debated whether it was appropriate or even advisable for journalists to advocate causes. We even made some time for meditation and writing in our journals. I, and all the others at the conference, felt completely at home and felt that we could raise concerns we have never raised elsewhere before.
In the end, I felt this is where I belong, among close friends with whom I have so much in common, even though I had not met most of them until a few days ago.
They even sang Happy Birthday on Saturday night and bought me a very big and calorie-laden cake, but I suppose that is the way things get done in the US. Everything has to be big.
So while I missed my family and friends in South Africa, I found some new friends in Kalamazoo, a place I did not even know existed until a few weeks ago.
Thank you, my new friends, for making my birthday special. I have a feeling that many of you will still be in my life when I turn 60.
(First published on the Mail and Guardian Thoughtleader site in June 2010)