Happy Birthday Morrie! (the one from Tuesday’s With Morrie)

Today would have been Morrie Schwartz’s 99th Birthday. If you’ve read my book you know that Morrie and his book had a powerful influence in my life. Instead of pulling one of my favorite quotes from his book (and there are many) I decided to tell a story in honor of Morrie and one that I think he’d like. He was one of my teachers, albeit through his book, and so my story is about students.

Last Saturday we had our orientation meeting for our brand new Askinosie Chocolate University Class of 2018. They are super smart, competitive, accomplished local juniors and seniors in high school. About half of our students are on full scholarship which means we raise the money for them to participate. The other half can pay on their own because their parents have the money. These students will meet with us periodically over the coming Spring. Then they’ll spend a week together this July in the Drury University dorms near our factory getting to know each other, studying our business model, learning about cocoa beans and chocolate, a little Tanzanian culture, language and history. They will go home and pack and meet us at the airport and we’ll travel to Tanzania to meet our farmer partners in an adventure of a lifetime. I have been doing this since we started the program in 2009. It fits within our local elementary, middle and high school projects.

Back to the orientation meeting with our somewhat nervous, bright-eyed students and their parents. We covered the practical need to know things like passports, visas, food, malaria, air travel, forms and medical histories. Then it was my turn to explain why we are going on this trip to begin with: business. The business of buying cocoa beans and profit sharing with farmers. I explained the things they might see, smell, taste, and experience. I showed a few pictures of beautiful lake Nyasa and the village, the farmers, the children.

I explained that they will see striking images of joy and sorrow side by side. I looked at each of our students and said “I am sure that your hearts will break, some of you a little and some of you a lot. If not then we have not done our job. It’s my hope that your heart will break not because of the poverty that you see in the people of Africa but because of the poverty you see in yourself.” I challenged our students to consider that (almost) anyone can travel to Africa, observe terrible things and feel sad. Some of it IS sad but not all it and some is both joyful and sad at the same time. But not all of us can absorb the experience, feel the sadness, feel the joy and recognize the depths of our own malnourishment.  

Our students more often than not come into this experience earnestly wanting to “help the people of Africa” until the blindfolds are removed and they see that it’s not their job. Their job is to let their hearts break because as Leonard Cohen would say “that’s how the light gets in.”

Here’s the lesson for me: I dont need to travel halfway around the world to see this. I can let the light in right here, right now. 


What Do Tuesdays, Microbes, and Jimmy Carter Have In Common?

As a lawyer all I did was read. But not books. I read new case law to keep up with changes in criminal law. I read transcripts of trials when working on appeals. I read police reports with such focus and intensity that it seemed as though I was inhabiting the page. Yes it was reading but not for inspiration. Over the ensuing years I’ve read and loved many books but right now I want to talk about the three books that influenced me at the beginning of the end of my law career. I write about this time in my life in great detail in my upcoming book (out November 14th) co-authored with my daughter Lawren Askinosie. I will leave that story for the book. Instead, I want to highlight three books that moved me to some kind of action at the beginning of my five year path from law to chocolate. I am writing about this now in hopes that you will see yourself in this list. Not because I hope you read these three books, not at all. My hope is that you read this list and come up with your own. What books will lead you to deep introspection, reflection, searching within and then action?

  1. Tuesdays With Morrie: I have talked and written about this book for nearly 20 years. It’s the book that opened my heart to something new. Lawren read the book to me out loud when she was 9 years old and night after night I could tell that something was happening. One line in the book penetrated my soul and has comforted me ever since: “death ends a life but not a relationship.” I needed to hear that at that exact moment in time. The story moved me to search my interior life in ways that perhaps no other book has. Then I took action after letting the interior work seep out. It moved me to co-found Lost & Found Grief Center with Dr. Karen Scott. Now 17 years running this center helps children, teens, and families learn how to grieve the death of a loved one. I still read it periodically and learn something new each time.
  2. The 100: A Ranking of The Most Influential Persons In History: I could not tell you who the author of this book is and it does not really matter. The book is 100 biographies of the most influential people ever in all time according this author. It was interesting to read the stories of people I had never heard of like Antony Van Leeuwenhoek born in 1632. What did he do to land on this list? He discovered microbes. Interesting for certain but here is what struck me down: I realized reading this book that I would never be in a revised edition. Ever. If you knew me back in those days, late 30s and early 40s, then this will not come as a big surprise that this news would be such a revelation to me. In reading this book back then I recognized that I would not only be left out of the 100 but the 1,000 or the 1,000,000 most influential people in history. Then I started thinking deeply about the luminaries in my own community growing up that I was sure most people would soon forget if they had not already. I then came to understand that after a couple of generations people do not even remember notable ancestors from their own family. Over time and reflection on this notion I started thinking about it from another perspective. If my daughter, Lawren, wrote a book titled “The 100 Most Influential People In My Life” would I be in it? I hope so! What about my wife’s book of the same title? What about my friends? Would I be in their book?
  3. Sources Of Strength: This book is a collection of some of former President Jimmy Carter’s favorite Sunday school lessons taught over the years. I have no idea why I bought this book in the first place. I never really liked Carter as president. Today I’d say he might be one of the greatest ex-presidents of all time. For some reason I bought and read the book. I think I liked the colors and photo on the cover of a really cool looking old tree. This was during a time in my life that I did not think that much about God. I went to church but was never really present for about 25 years. I outline my reasons in my book. Jimmy Carter told the story of the “woman at the well” in his book. It was the first time I had ever read the story of the Samaritan woman and the wall of prejudice that Jesus broke down with the simple question: “Will you give me a drink?” That story was powerful for me. There was something simple about the book full of similar lessons that led me quietly back to my faith that I’d abandoned years before.

Guess what? I am pretty sure that the word “chocolate” appears nowhere in any of these books. The books did not have a secret fold out map made just for me that led me to the next path in my life. The books I mention stirred something in me beyond mere words on a page. They all sparked my interior life and prompted action to match it. Are you searching for a book to ignite your interior life that will lead you to action? Email me about your list.