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What do I want to be when I grow up? Or how I found myself!

By Harley King ’71

Martin Luther King Jr.
When I graduated from Goshen College with a degree in English in 1971, I had some vague ideas about being a writer but fewer ideas about how to make my dream a reality. My college years were challenging — largely because of political distractions outside my studies.

My first year, I flunked German because I was more concerned about fighting racism and protesting the Vietnam War and rarely attended class. In February 1968, the beginning of my second semester, I walked through Arlington National Cemetery with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and thousands of others to protest military action in Vietnam. I turned 19 the day King was shot outside his hotel room in Memphis and the streets in our cities burned.

I also went “Clean for Gene” and shaved my beard. My father worried I was campaigning for the infamous Joe McCarthy who held the anti-communist hearings in Washington, D.C., but I laughed, because I only knew the liberal Democrat, Eugene McCarthy from Minnesota, who had pledged to end the war. I cheered when Lyndon Johnson chose not to run for a second term, booed when Bobby Kennedy tossed his hat into the ring and was shocked when he, too, was killed.

Poor People's March - 1968
In June 1968, my friend Dean and I boarded a bus in Peoria, Ill., to go to the nation’s capital for the Poor People’s March. Not fully understanding what we were doing, we saw ourselves as part of that Mennonite protest heritage dating back to the Protestant Reformation. We had been raised to believe that it was more important to die a martyr for one’s faith than to violate one’s principles.

Haile Selassie I
Salvation came in the form of a Study-Service Term (SST)
abroad. If I had stayed in the U.S., I am sure I would have been pulled deeper into the radical politics of the time. But instead, I boarded a plane in Miami and flew to Kingston, Jamaica, with S.A. Yoder and a group of students not nearly as radical as I had been.  We would spend 13 weeks there and earn 12 hours of college credit.

Slowly, U.S. politics became less important. We did not watch the 6 o’clock news or read the newspaper. Instead, we discovered a culture that had been heavily influenced by Britain — even driving on the “wrong” side of the road! I learned about Rastafarians and their worship of Haile Selassie I, the Ethiopian emperor, long before most Americans every heard of them.  I read the novels of Roger Mais and taught young boys how to read at a mountain youth camp.  I fell in love with Jamaica and suffered culture shock when I returned to the U.S. a short 13 weeks later in December of 1968.

Vachel Lindsay
SST was a pivotal point in my college career. Instead of dropping out of school to save the world, I focused most of my attention on my studies, with occasional excursions into politics. I sought redemption in the creative spirit. I wrote poetry and gave readings, edited literary journals and Pinchpenny Press, had the role of Zeus in the Greek play, “Trojan Women,” and absorbed the genius of Nick Lindsay, son of poet Vachel Lindsay. I even found reason to hope for a better world in the summer of 1969, walking across campus with my first love while Neil Armstrong took a “giant leap for mankind” onto the moon.

I was the first in my parents’ families to graduate from college. I had outgrown the farm, but where did I belong? Poets were not in high demand, and neither was anybody else. In the midst of a recession, there were few jobs to be found except in the army. The war in Vietnam was still going full throttle. Even though I was in no immediate danger of being drafted, I began voluntary service at Miami Valley Hospital in Dayton, Ohio. I was no closer to achieving my dream of being a writer — I was an orderly on a psychiatric unit.

Script for
Christ in the
Concrete City
Two years later I was married, and my wife encouraged me to go to graduate school to study theater after I enjoyed directing the play, “Christ in the Concrete City,” for Metamora (Ill.) Mennonite Church. With the carpentry experience gained by working with my father, I secured a position building stage sets for summer-theater at Illinois State University and earned 12 hours of credit. By the end of the second semester, I had run out of money. Even with two part-time jobs working more than 40 hours, I was still unable to pay the bills.

Then, the miraculous happened: a nursing home company offered me a job writing policy and procedural manuals. Almost four years after graduating, I started my first job as a writer. True, I was not writing the Great American Novel or powerful, romantic poetry, but I was being paid to play with words.  My starting salary was less per hour than what my father had paid me as a carpenter, but I was writing.

Modern Haiku
Today, I can say I spent my life as a writer — a person who understands and believes in the power of words. After taking the position in 1975, I began writing haiku poetry, a Japanese art popular around the world. During a seven-year period I published more than 200 haiku in 24 magazines and two books, Winter Silence and Empty Playground. In 1982 I created a seven-line poetic form which I still write in today.  I have written over 5,000 poems in the last 38 years. In 1985 I started writing short stories, with 100 written to date. In 1989, I published a collection of my haiku, poetry and short stories in a book entitled, Mother, Don't Lock Me In That Closet.  My wife and I co-authored a nonfiction book on pet loss — we published It’s Okay to Cry in 1998 and it has outsold my poetry books 10 to one. I also authored The World of Speaking, a collection of interviews with professional speakers. I’m not famous and I’m not rich, but I spent countless hours working on something I love. And I’ve had to support my writing habit by working in the corporate world.

It's Okay To Cry
I believe that ultimately we do in life what we are meant to do. We may try to escape our destiny — to run away, as Jonah did, from what God wants us to do. I committed to becoming a minister when I was a sophomore in high school. By the time I was a senior, I was searching for answers — I ran away from being a preacher. Yet for the last 25 years I have been a professional speaker, delivering over 5,000 presentations and averaging over 225 presentations some years. People will come up to me after a speech and tell me that I have missed my calling — that I should have been a preacher. I think to myself, “I am a preacher.” My message, very simply, is, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” I reach thousands with that message, striving to plant seeds of hope in the hearts of others.

A collection of my haiku,
poetry and short stories
Everything in my life has come full circle. I have become what I dreamed. God gives unto us when we are ready to receive, and does not give us dreams we cannot achieve. Service to others was part of the teaching I grew up with and was at the heart of my Study-Service-Term experience. While I took time accepting my path, desiring something more glamorous than health care, it has given me everything I wanted and more: it is a privilege to help others in their time of need.

Sometimes we fight who we are, struggling against ourselves and our natures. But we must learn to accept who we are and appreciate who we become. We must love ourselves for what and who we are, and believe in our talents.

(Author's Note:  I wrote this article when I turned 50 and it was published in my college alumni magazine.  I have updated it for this publication.)