STILLPOINT Archive: last updated 12/14/2007

FEATURE | The Changed Traveler

Michael Polefka recently graduated from Gordon as a Pike Scholar with departmental honors in English. His is an unusual profile; after one semester at Gordon in 1990, he served for 10 years as a volunteer with Mercy Ships, a medical missionary organization that provides free surgeries for people in developing countries. He traveled to over 25 nations in southern and western Africa, the Baltic states, and much of coastal Europe.

During those years Michael held on to a plan to return to college someday. He read voraciously from the ship's library. Though he was eager to get out into the world after living in a small Christian community for 10 years, Michael decided first to return to Gordon--possibly just for a semester--to strengthen his grade point average. Once back at Gordon, his love of the small classes and his appreciation for the professors made him open to staying on.

Now he finds himself somewhat disappointed that the college experience he anticipated for so long has ended. "Can there be anything better than sitting back, reading and learning?" he asks.

Michael began his missionary work with Mercy Ships hoping to "change the world." Over the years his idealism boiled off and his faith was distilled, refined. His senior thesis was an ambitious book-length work in progress titled Uproot, consisting of a series of narratives grounded in various settings in and around Boston.

The project was inspired, he says, "from my process of reconciling my experience of nearly a decade of overseas service in relief work with my present perception of Boston, the city in which I grew up. In choosing Boston as the theater for these narratives, my hope has been to connect with any reader who has experienced the urban, whether in Boston or any other city. These urban places even serve as a concentrated version of the global community. For this project, however, my focus is not so much on overseas experiences as on the return from them--the changed traveler--and what they will do with those experiences and changes in their perceptions. The final hope is that the uprooting is a positive thing, if catastrophic--catastrophic in the sense of eucatastrophe ('good-turning'), to borrow from Tolkien."

Excerpt from a section of Uproot featuring the Boston Public Garden:
His clothes were shabby, and the knocked-about 35mm around his neck looked older than I. He had purpose in his gait, but not swiftness--he looked to be in his 80s, his face deep in lines and creases; all except his eyes, which held a wonder I envied.

I have lately become fascinated with age. At times I feel as though I have stepped out of myself to watch the slow progress of my body and mind. I am not old, but I am not fully young either. I have a chronic ache in my side that my doctor tells me not to worry about, and that the lawyer on TV says will make us both rich if the doctor's wrong. Information doesn't flash into recall the way it did when I was in high school. Vitamins now seem like a better idea to me than popular music. Conversation with friends now involves more of the past than it used to. I never sleep through the night.

This slow progress of aging had consumed all but that old man's eyes and purpose, and somehow he had gotten out of bed that morning and walked as briskly as he could to the center of this city to spite the cold and the grey, and to find something worth being delighted over. I had spent that morning walking with my shoulders hunched, looking out for municipal social deterioration and bird droppings. I took a cue and opened my eyes.

Turning up the Haffonreffer Walk in the Boston Public Garden, I was rewarded with an eruption of Canada geese gathered for migration at the pond, their wings whistling as they pulled up from the water's surface. The flower beds on either side of the walkway were cleared for winter, raked out and fertilized. Squirrels nosed around looking for storage space. From the footbridge over the pond I took a lesson in the grace of dormancy. I stood on the footbridge, the bedside to the declining year, and tried to imagine it as a nodding-off instead of a terminal illness. I rested my head on my paws.

On the south side of the pond the Swan Boats had been removed, the docks swept clean and in order. A few mallards drifted with beaks tucked away. On the north side of the pond were two points of focus--an enormous Asian-style garden lantern I had never noticed before and a deep red maple in the center of the small island sanctuary for the mallards. Surrounding the pond, willows formed a garland with their strands cropped evenly, just a few inches above the waterline.

West of the footbridge the flower beds were still active--winter kale and some late-blooming roses. The west side of the garden is anchored by the Ritz-Carlton across Arlington Street, host of well-funded weddings that require pristine photo ops. A certain Thomas Lee had commissioned a nearby monument to be built in 1867 "in gratitude for the relief of human suffering." His inspiration was the 1845 discovery of the properties of ether at Massachusetts General Hospital, and he gives this event biblical significance, citing both Old and New Testaments: From Revelation, "Neither shall there be any more pain," and from Isaiah, "This also cometh forth from the Lord of Hosts, which is wonderful in counsel and excellent in working." The sculpture at the top of the column shows the Good Samaritan ministering to the wounded man, and on each of the column faces in turn are images of healing agents, alternating between the earthy and the divine: a team of surgeons, an angel of mercy, a Civil War doctor, the Madonna and Child in union with the Muse of Science.

One man builds a monument in thanks for pain's absence. Millions have pain with no hope of relief. I have a dull ache in my side that only troubles me when I think about it and a propensity toward melancholy that in truth is really a luxury. I consider gratitude.

I followed the path in from the edge of the garden and came across the first of two fountains, now dry. I hadn't seen these since going there as a boy with my father to ride the Swan Boats some summer back in the 1970s. A bronze sculpture shows two toddler-age boys playing in what would ordinarily be the spray of the fountain. In a shady clearing across the path there is another sculpture of a mountain lion catching a raptor out of the air--two predators squaring off. Facing the center of the park, the predators are on the left and the innocents are on the right. I pondered whether this was intended.

To the east of a statue of a man called Tadeusz Kosciusko (the Polish hero of the Continental Army in the American Revolution) stands one of the garden's numerous Belgian Elms (Ulmus hollandica x belgica). An enormous burl was growing out of its side, roughly the size of a person in fetal position. It's believed that irritants or bacteria stimulate these outgrowths over a period of many years. Carpenters and wood turners will tell you that these make some of the most stunning patterns of grain, and are highly sought after for wood sculpting. Not unlike the irritating grain of sand in the oyster yielding a pearl--though this particular burl is more than 100 years in the making.

At the footbridge I completed my walk, the drizzle subsiding and the sky lightening, with more people willing to give the gardens a chance. Most of the languages and accents were not local: German, Dutch, French, Scottish, Texan--but all had the common timbre of enjoyment. An elderly Asian man walked slowly with his hands behind his back, wearing a surgical mask but showing peaceful eyes; his wife a few paces away-no mask but equally content.

I saw no sign of the old man with the camera and the purpose and the eyes of wonder. His day had taken him away as mine was about to take me. Not without teaching me something about a strangely obscure grace. The year turns through three seasons and settles, resting its head on its paws.


Michael Polefka moved a lot growing up--eight different times between the North and South Shores of Boston, but always within easy reach of the city. Having returned from their service overseas in 2002, he and his wife, Kendra, now live near the beach in Quincy, Massachusetts, where they are eagerly awaiting the arrival of their first child in October.



Michael Polefka