Wait, what? It’s over? But we were just getting started! On December 12th, 2020, Finn, Eamon, and I packed the last of our belongings and boarded a 60 hour flight bound for home. Erin and Atlas departed 30 days before, and we were all excited to make the family whole again. And with that long flight to Paris and then New York and Atlanta and finally Huntsville, our fantastic African chapter, one that added so much richness and vibrancy to our lives, came to a close. Within the first couple of weeks of our arrival, Covid numbers in the United States would spike to their highest point to date, a madman would bomb downtown Nashville, and a bunch of idiots pumped up on Monster Energy drinks and delusions of grandeur would storm the Capitol. Quite the welcome home party. Jennifer Egan in her novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad, calls it what it is. “Structural dissatisfaction” she says is when you return “to circumstances that once pleased you after having experienced a more thrilling or opulent way of life, only to find that you can no longer tolerate them.” Or as Eamon asked it, “What do we do instead of safaris now?”
Recently I’ve found a few more hours in the day, and I’ve been using those to write about travel and to think about the closure that the life during the pandemic couldn’t afford. This post is an attempt to reflect on one of the previously undocumented highlights of our African adventures. Also in the works is a full recap of the seven days I recently spent biking across Bhutan. I’m glad to be back writing and reading again. I’ve missed y’all.
Life on Mars
Sossusvlei, NAMIBIA – Seaming fresh 4×4 tracks across the Western Kalahari and the Eastern Namib Deserts with good friend, former colleague, and fellow Gen Xer Paul Beavers in our seemingly indestructible five speed Isuzu pickup truck will forever be one of the great adventures of my lifetime. Located northwest of South Africa, the country is the third least densely populated country in the world (coming in behind Greenland and Mongolia). Over the last few years I’ve felt a growing attraction to these types of places. I’d much prefer a trip to St. Helena over one to St. Croix. Some of you probably understand.
We took an early morning flight from Cape Town to the South Atlantic port of Walvis Bay, Namibia where we quickly gathered the necessary provisions (bottled water, a couple of sandwiches each, and a real folding paper map!) before pointing the wheels down the dusty C14 road for the eight hour drive to Solitaire. The air-con was weak, the speakers sucked, but we had an undiminished 80’s playlist and thousands of miles of undulating and ever-shifting single lane dirt roads to choose from.
I read somewhere that some of songs on U2’s The Joshua Tree album grew out of Bono’s humanitarian experiences in Ethiopia and Egypt. Maybe it is because they were born out of the eastern Sahara and the droughts in sub-Saharan Africa, that songs like Where the Streets Have No Name feels entirely at home in the desert. The lines on the map had a letter denoting the type/condition of the road (A and B are the paved four and two lane highways, C is usually single lane graded dirt, and D is for the farm roads and lesser traveled/local travel routes) followed by a number (they start at one and increase the further north you go). The land we covered had no signage at all with the exception of the sticker adorned Tropic of Capricorn. There’s certainly something eternal in that song that captures the timelessness of landscape like that. We joked more than once that we were road tripping on Tatooine. Few trees, far fewer people and the horizon expanding limitless in all directions.
Just outside of Sossusvlei National Park we spent the night in a castle-like desert oasis. It was here at Le Mirage Hotel where I booked a combination indoor/outdoor room that allow guests the option to sleep on top of a turret and under the prodigious tranquility of the empyreal desert sky. Unless you’ve done it, you can’t imagine it, and I’m sorry that I could never find the words to adequately describe it. Suffice it to say, I’ve never seen anything like it in my entire life, and I probably never will again. As the sun faded over the dunes, I was treated to the history of the galaxy playing out above. Over there was the Southern Cross and light that had left from from nearest stars as Newton was writing his Principia. The Milky Way stretched from horizon to horizon, a cosmic scar pulled across a sea of black. Who could sleep? Shooting stars and satellites. I rarely sleep in the open air anymore, let alone under a blanket of comforting darkness. And to think no matter where you are on this planet, that above us at every moment there exists this field light so dense with stars trapped in time. Each night those pinpricks there twinkling above us are transmissions providing near constant messages through the darkness if we’d only look up to receive them. It seemed a waste to not greet each voyager traveling from some far flung solar parent in a more deserving fashion. Starlight that had covered time and distances of such magnitude that I could never understand (not really anyway) deserved better. I slept with my contact lenses in that night trying to take it all in, to welcome the light of so many yesterdays. “The universe is constantly visiting us,” writes poet Etel Adnan, “while waiting for us to reverse that itinerary.”
Last image of the night sky is from Le Mirage Hotel’s Instagram page.
Side-note: International Dark Sky Reserves are my favorite kind of national parks and Namibia’s is an absolute treasure. And like any treasure, it’s value lies in it’s being rare and obscure and removed from the ordinary. Check out these 18 sites that have earned and maintain I.D.A.’s standards for darkness. They are all on my list of places to find and experience. The world can often feel like a dark place these days, but somehow I think a helpful response (on a personal level anyway) might just be in creating more time and space for this other type of darkness.
Just after sunrise, Paul and I went out exploring the dunes around Sossusvlei. While “Big Daddy” was intimidatingly immense (325m/1066 ft), Dune 45 (170m/560ft) seemed manageable enough for us to climb before the sun became relentless. I felt nothing but gratitude as I clawed my way to the top of that five million year old dune with the sand shifting under my feet. It would be a recurring emotion on this trip. The ceaselessness of the desert connects you to time in a way that can’t be replicated anywhere else. The light changes, but even in it’s cycle of day and night it’s never ending. Even the wind seemed constant. Before the sun was too high, we climbed back into the truck and turned east on the C19.
On a stretch break somewhere between Sesriem and another speck on the map named Mariental, I climbed up onto the roof of the truck looked over the dervishes and onto a place where nothing existed and nothing most likely would ever exist. The land was a barren rocky slab baking in heat of the midday sun. Even geologic time even seemed to have abandoned this place. You might think what a depressing place to stop. A spot so brutalized by the elements that it’s own existence seemed meaningless, a wasted land devoid of any significance to life. I immediately fell in love with it.
Take notice of what light does – to everything.”
Tess Guinery, The Moonflower Monologues
Let me explain it another way. The previous night I went for a run from the castle before dinner. After 20 minutes of running west across the pan, I slowed to a stop before turning back. A bead of sweat dropped at my feet and disappeared into that red earth. Crouching down, I collected few rough rocks no larger than the size of my fist and placed them around one foot then the other. I stepped back to admire my work. Two size 11 ellipses just touching to form a figure eight. A primitive attempt at graffiti? Maybe. Or rather I think it was less of an artistic expression and more of an existential one. Someone was here once. I was here once.
Just the other day I watched my son rummage his feet down into the sand at the beach, and I thought about those outlines in the desert. They are still there, I’m certain of it. And when I think about them next they will be there too. In fact, I’m fairly confident they will still be there in a hundred years, and perhaps even a millennia or more, possibly even long after everything else I ever touch has disappeared. Would you think of that? For all the energy and commotion and exigence of my life, my most lasting direct result here might be those rocks, a hastily arranged into the same symbol we use to signify the infinite moving through the universe at God’s pace under those gorgeous everlasting stars. It makes me smile to think about the absurdity of it.
Standing on the roof of that truck under that noon sun dreaming about the adventures that lay ahead of us in central Namibia I was overcome with the augustness of it all. There are moments when I wonder out loud whose life this is. It often doesn’t feel like mine. How can you feel simultaneously liberated and domesticated by your experiences on this planet?
“This is our secret world, filled with the unreachable.”
Yang Mu, Fourteen Sonnets
If you ever have the chance, Namibia and all its lonely haunting beauty will always be waiting for you.
Have you ever risked a belief? I see nothing particularly courageous in risking one’s life. So you lose it, you go to your hero’s heaven and everything is milk and honey ’til the end of time. Right? You get your reward and suffer no earthly consequences. That’s not courage. Real courage is risking something you have to keep on living with, real courage is risking something that might force you to rethink your thoughts and suffer change and stretch your consciousness. Real courage is risking one’s clichés.”
– Tom Robbins, Another Roadside Attraction
As my kids say, I’ve been feeling some big feelings recently. Since April our family has been counting down to August 9th. That would be the day when all three boys could go out into the world to make friends and to learn and to be kids. They are heading into the wonderful life that is grade four and grade two and pre-school. At this point on the calendar I could start to think about and work on what’s next in my professional life. It was an exciting time full of potential. But as July slammed its door without even saying goodbye, I realized that the combination of Delta variant and our nation’s anti-vaxxers/anti-maskers were going to run interference with our plans. I spent the last week of July scouring reviews and ordering children’s’ masks. The boys could still go to school, I thought, we’d just have another year of masking and distancing and being careful. This would be most difficult for our two year old, but okay we’d still see it through.
As August 9th approached it became apparent that Delta was hitting different. We knew this from India’s experience, but we failed to prepare for it. Unless there was a local school mask mandate, our elementary classrooms would be petri dishes for a variant that was no longer sparing children the worst of its effects. Six days into the school year (with only about 50% of kids at school masking) we pulled everyone out again for a another semester of homeschooling. As I write this nearly 40% of Tennessee’s almost nation-leading infections are children. Like their grown-up counterparts, pediatric ICUs for 300 miles in every direction are at a breaking point. It’s a devastating turn of events, not because our kids can’t go to school and I can’t go back to work, but because this level and intensity of suffering was mostly avoidable had people done something that isn’t that radical (but certainly feels so these days). Rather than doubling down on personal freedom mantras, if people had bet on uncertainty, on not knowing, on listening… Well maybe we’d be in a different place. As it stands, we are back in lock down. No restaurants, no grocery stores, no large gatherings for the kids. Yes it’s hard, but it’s not as hard as having our kids intubated or dying. So here we are, feeling grateful that we can shelter in place until this storm passes again.
Over the last two hundred years there has been a great improvement in personal and public hygiene and cleanliness; and this was largely brought about by persuading people that the results of being dirty and apathetic in the face of disease were not acts of God, but preventable acts of nature; not sheer misery in things, but the controllable mechanisms of life. We have had the first, the physical, phase of the hygienic revolution; it is time we went to the barricades for the second, the mental. Not doing good when you usefully could is not immoral; it is going about with excrement on your hands.”
John Fowles, The Aristos
So this is how it happened that I got into several heated discussions almost simultaneously with friends and family on social media. Turns out that anti-vaxxers/anti-maskers didn’t like it when I called them selfish. But here’s the thing, the way I see it, they’re wanting to ride the society bus for free. They will refuse the vaccine but some will still take up a bed and professional medical care in an ICU. Here in the south they are already squeezing the last of the precious resources from car accident, hurricane and flooding victims. They will also benefit from herd immunity (whether they like it or not) and they don’t have to do anything to enjoy that advantage. I took a risk in getting that shot (we all did, there’s nothing in this life that is entirely without risk). Don’t get me wrong, it was a tiny risk, like one so small I can’t even explain the mathematical probability of it being a risk, but it was still a risk. Keep in mind, I’m a fairly risk-averse guy, but this was the price of admission and it was worth it to protect other people, even if I didn’t know them. I did my part to help society fight this thing. I thought of it like this, I don’t particularly like paying taxes either, but I still do because we all benefit from roads and bridges and fire departments and libraries and schools even if we can’t see those advantages directly. These anti-Americans who only want to watch rather than participate are trying to take advantage of the work and knowledge without wanting to contribute in the building process. I call that selfish. They think I’m being mean.
I wonder what it is it like to be that self-unaware. Truly, I do.
Here’s my thing… I think this world has little use for those who choose to stand aside but who also will try to issue instructions for how to live in it. I kinda feel like if you don’t play the game, you can’t be in charge of making the rules. If you can’t find a way to aid in the progress of humanity, then know that smirking cynicism is a form of sickness much worse than COVID. There are carriers of death among us who are not themselves sick. Strong words? Yes, and deeply felt. Along with a borderline narcissistic personality disorder, some of these people have the shallowest view of history. They want this free ride, one in which they aren’t expected to contribute to the cost of the journey, but they don’t respect the fact that somebody else paid the price to build the vehicle of the civilization they inherited. They aren’t being asked to pave the road or to even to drive the bus. So many people before us paid for that. They paid it forward for us. Now it’s our turn. We owe it to others to risk a little something for a better tomorrow. Jesus, M.L.K., Ted Lasso, all believed that there is a moral obligation to participate in the work of society. Well, I’m telling you the moral crisis of our time is unrelenting.
Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must… undergo the fatigue of supporting it.”
– Thomas Paine (my favorite radical, drunken, atheist)
But it wasn’t these anti-vaxxers/anti-maskers take on freedom (without responsibility) that bothered me so much. I’ve learned to live with (not accept, but live with) the myth of America propagated by Toby Keith and Tucker Carlson since my days in undergrad. No, the part about this nightmare that gets into my bones and makes me openly hostile with my words is their god-damned certainty. I’ll be the first to admit I don’t understand the mRNA technology. I don’t understand my microwave or Bluetooth headphones or bitcoin either. Not fully. Enough to be dangerous mostly. I have a working knowledge, not an expertise, on many things. The world is much too vast, much too complex to be an expert in even one area. But I stay sane by keeping in mind one simple mantra, “I could be wrong.”
I’ve been wrong a lot more in this life than I’ve been right, as tough as that is for me to admit, it’s true. I’m wrong all the effin’ time. Ask my wife. Ask my family. And I’m wrong regarding just about everything, even things I’m supposedly knowledgeable about. I oversimplify. I create heuristics. I repeat what I hear others say (the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell). But here’s the catch. I know that I don’t actually know this stuff beyond a surface level understanding. So I’m curious and open minded and skeptical of my experiences and depth of insight. Knowing that I’m so often wrong allows me put a tiny asterisk on my beliefs, on my knowledge, on my position. Knowing that I’m probably working with incomplete information allows me to hedge my bets. It allows me to keep the door open for improving my position when I’m presented with more or better data. My faith in being right has room for doubt. Faith is not a rock solid tangible. It is a fluid and like the properties of a fluid it is subject to change shape depending on conditions and the container it is in. My faith in science and medicine and government has room for doubt. Do the institutions that you have faith in have room for a bit of fluid doubt? If your faith doesn’t, is it still faith? If I was as certain in my position as some of these people I’m exchanging words with, my sense of self and of the world would crumble if I was presented with an alternative narrative. I too would fight like heck if I wrapped my self-image and identity and wagered everything on being right. There is no alternative for them. What happens when you put all of your faith into a belief and it disappoints you? That sounds like a fantastic premise for a novel…
If I had painted myself into an anti-vax corner, I too would call masks and mandates tyranny. I too would find a way to blame doctors and local governments and Nancy Pelosi for everything rather than admit I might be wrong. Because admitting that I was wrong would be akin to finding a crack in the foundation of everything I’ve built my world on. In short, these people who I used to like and respect, have left themselves no room to reconsider. Their beliefs are brittle and constructed with unwavering hubris. The deathbed realization of so many anti-vaxxers is both ironic and tragic. It didn’t have to be this way. I am certain of that.
Can you be skeptical about what people tell you to put in your body but also have faith in the power and knowledge of established experts and institutions? I believe so. Yes, a single expert can be wrong, but when 100 or a 1,000 or 10,000 experts from around the world, people who have dedicated their lives to learning (not only YouTubing) put their names and reputations on something, they have my attention. When my distant relative or college roommate writes something counter to those experts, sure, I’ll read it and consider it from their perspective, but in that consideration I will allow space for being wrong. Could the WHO and CDC and the world’s foremost epidemiologists and leading health experts all be in on a big pharma conspiracy trying to sterilize whole populations? Yeah, maybe. But then again could Covid just be a highly infectious virus which happened to be more deadly than the flu before we had a vaccine, which hundreds of millions of vaccine doses have proven to help dramatically reduce the risk of hospitalization and death? Yeah, maybe.
So which do I doubt more? How do you decide where to place faith? Let me frame it another way. Is it more likely that my blood relative in working with the internet super-sleuths has ferreted out a world-wide conspiracy using only Facebook posts? Or that the CDC and thousands of scientists and doctors worldwide just want to help people avoid needless suffering by submitting their work to the rigors of the scientific process and their data and research for peer review? Hmmm, experts who genuinely want to help verses a college buddy who couldn’t write his own freshman composition essays? It’s not really close call when you put it like that, is it? Actually it’s pretty easy to pick a winner and a loser in this instance.
So when these anti-vaxxers ask me if I will vaccinate kids when it comes available?
Yes, I’m certain of it…
… Although with more information, I’m subject to change my mind.
Get your shot. Wear a mask. Keep well and stay in touch.
Well, well, well. Would you look at who we have here. I can’t believe I’m sitting here and attempting this absurd pastime again. It’s been a year, hasn’t it friends? And yet, look at us! We are still churning out efforts day after day despite it all. And as difficult as it has been to move back to the U.S. (at the height of a global pandemic and in the midst of an attempted coup), damn it’s been good to see you again. For those of you that I haven’t caught up with yet, you’re on my list. I’m coming for you!
After several failed attempts and months spent in other people’s homes, I’m happy to announce we have secured a place in Sewanee, Tennessee. And boy is it worth the wait. It’s a place rich with trails, lakes, pastures, and the slower pace of life that we fell in love with in South Africa. Finally. The sea shipment arrived and has been mostly unpacked. The boys have friends and a school year on the horizon. All seems to be unfolding as we hoped it ultimately would. My stress and anxiety, having peaked in February and March have now receded leaving an abundance of gratitude in their wake. Maybe we really have turned the corner.
I still think often of my former students, and some of whom I’ve been fortunate enough to keep in touch with fill me on their challenges and accomplishments. Recently I was walking in the woods with Atlas and reflecting on how anxious some of those kids were about taking the next steps in their lives. And it struck me that some of the people who needed so much support back then are absolutely thriving today. Schools are fantastic at teaching and enforcing compliance. They are a dime a dozen. It’s much more difficult to find a place that values and teaches students how recognize when and how to pivot, how to read the oncoming winds and how to tack when necessary. As I hear from these friends near and far, a recurring theme is apparent. They are all surveying the immediate landscapes of their lives and checking the maps and making adjustments accordingly. I mean, that’s some seriously impressive neuroplasticity.
Twenty years ago in a tiny dorm room I had yellow post-it notes with favorite quips and quotes tacked above my desk. I don’t remember where I read it or if it was even authentic, but one of them said “Everybody has a plan till they get hit.” It was attributed to Iron Mike Tyson. I don’t know why I had it up there. I didn’t particularly like the quote. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t the one doing the hitting. At that time life was like that. I would make a plan going into a race and then something would go wrong, a split would be way off or I’d be much further back than I had envisioned, and I’d spend the rest of the miles before the finish line trying to survive. In my classes too, I’d nail all my school assignments but blow up on a mid-term or a paper, and I’d struggle till finals because I couldn’t ever put things back the way I had pictured them. That’s why I’m so impressed by the stories from these young people. It took me at least a decade and too many false-starts, abandoned relationships, and half-hearted endeavors to get to a place where I could take a hit and not throw up my hands in surrender.
Even still, I think that’s been the most difficult part of the last year for me personally. Recognizing in the confusion of the moment just what needs to be done is a gift age has kindly bestowed. And after a year like this, it is a most appreciated one and well worth the cost.
No, this is how it works You’re young until you’re not And you love until you don’t And you try until you can’t
You laugh until you cry And you cry until you laugh And everyone must breathe Until their dying breath
No, this is how it works You peer inside yourself You take the things you like And try to love the things you took
Then you take that love you made And you stick it into Someone else’s heart Pumping someone else’s blood
And walking arm in arm You hope that don’t get harmed But even if it does You’ll just do it all again
Well, well, well, look who it is. It’s been nearly nine months since I last sat to write in this space. Ansel Atlas Bennett was born on July 8th, happy and healthy. The adventures of Kilimanjaro and Kenya and Paris and Cape Town had exhausted my desire to travel, and I was set to rest and read and write. But a funny thing happened not long after the baby was born. The words escaped. I couldn’t find them or even the desire to even look for them. Maybe it was sleep deprivation. Maybe it was the load shedding. Maybe it was the demands of my last two grad school courses. Whatever it was, they were gone, and so was the clarity of thought that came with them. I still enjoyed adventuring, the hiking and biking and running, but the cohesiveness of a story and reflection had dried up in dust and the late winter sun. Not only did I not want to write, I didn’t feel like I had anything to say. During this time another change occurred, one I knew and feared was coming. Since leaving the U.S., the teacher in me, my professional identity of the last twelve years, has been sliding away, evaporating. I lost touch with many of my co-workers and students and parents, the local politics, and curriculum developments. When the writer I aspired to be also began to recede over the horizon I felt adrift, not here anymore and not yet there. I think this is common experience of expats and people changing career trajectories. I recognized it, but in this space I felt that I was losing touch with me.
Then in late November, I received a 3AM text from a former student. His friend and a former classmate who had been battling with mental illness had taken his own life. Devastated, I felt immediately and deeply for for his parents and friends and the wider community. In his obituary I learned that his memorial service would be the day after we arrived home for the holidays. I made plans to attend.
Six hours after reading the message, the rainy season arrived in Pretoria in full force and the flooding began. Ten days of cold torrent. Big drops, heavy with the weight of the sky. A year’s catharsis. After day three, South Africa started rolling blackouts as the nation’s coal supply had become saturated. The power would be cut twice a day for up to four hours at time. No heat, no sound, no light. The days were gray and the nights were black. Atlas caught a sniffle and struggled to sleep. For me the light at the end of the tunnel was our planned home-leave, booked ten months ago. If I could just get home, just re-tether to a known world. But our travel was a series of misadventures of the Odyssean kind. Last minute flight itinerary changes left us scrambling to find seats together, missed connections, lightening strikes, lost luggage. We didn’t meet Cyclops on our journey, but there was a pretty ugly encounter with a gate agent in Atlanta that I think counts. By the time we went to bed in Nashville, my emotional gas tank was empty and the jet-lag only compounded the exhaustion.
Early the next morning I headed to the church for the memorial service. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Memorials for older people are easier in many ways compared to someone so young. What do you say or do for parents and family and friends of someone with such creative energy and potential? Again, I had no words.
The service was warm and welcoming and a beautiful tribute. The pastor recognized the shared grief and the uncertainty of how to grieve felt by many in the room and addressed it frankly and with empathy. The family of the young man spoke. Friends shared memories. And the community did its best to offer comfort both immediately and in the coming months and years. After the closing prayer, I hesitantly approached the young people who at one point were the awkward teenagers that populated my class rosters. Each face full and grown into itself, now free of braces and bad skin and awkwardness. These young men and young women who once wore their uncertain identities buried under their oversized clothes, these kids who were trying so hard to be something for someone else now stood before me having arrived as themselves. And they started telling me about grad school applications and fellowships and honors programs. They told me about papers they wrote, books they read, and publications they were submitting to. It was delightful to see the light in their eyes. But I also heard about challenging semesters and unexpected obstacles and the disappointment of taking a semester off, of transferring, of dropping out, and the uncertainty they felt about their future. There was both pride of what they had done and that acceptance of what life was dealing. Some were excelling and some were managing, and a few were only just getting by, and to them I offered what support I could. After all, I wasn’t their parent or teacher or coach any longer.
Again, what could I say to a young person really hitting the wall of disillusionment for the first time? It sucks? I’m sorry? You’re not alone? I felt hollow and empty and unworthy and unqualified of offering any sort of advice. And I felt like my un-teacher-like reaction compounded the confusion as well.
A day later I started feeling the symptoms. My body was breaking down. Sore throat, headache, congestion. By Monday I had a full blown illness. By the week’s end it was in my lungs, and I was suffering despite antibiotics, a steroid shot, and a ton of Advil and Sudafed. The trip only spiraled from there. In Maine, I stayed in a hotel room down the hall away from my wife and boys. I felt like I was walking-dead. Three weeks passed before I started seeing improvement. It was gone though, the holidays, my time with my family and friends, the opportunity to enjoy being home. In a flash I had lost the energy to celebrate Christmas morning with my boys, and to connect with the people I care about to a haze of decongestants and cough suppressants. On New Year’s eve, I went to bed early, wishing only to wake up in the warm sun of South Africa, and to be able start again, to see the last of 2019 disappear in the rear view mirror. I was sad at what was lost and what wasn’t gained.
The ups and downs and meanders of life take their toll on everyone. And it has taken me a long time to learn to read the patterns and hear the rhythms of my emotional life. When I withdraw from friends and into books and reading, it’s because I’m sad. When I’m surly and sarcastic, it’s because I’m sad. When I get angry, it’s usually because I’m sad. When I want to destroy a part of myself out on the roads or the track or the trails, it’s usually because I’m sad. And when I feel self-righteous, it’s also because I’m sad. These habits are how I’ve learned to deal with the welling-up of disappointment or loss. Fight or flight. Withdrawing is easy, isn’t it? Hide behind a book page, a screen, and wait for it the feeling to subside. Anger shows well too and people certainly take you seriously for a short while after. And it never lasts long either, blowing through like straight-line wind before of an impending summer storm. And my chosen forms of self-immolation are socially acceptable too. I mean going to the gym or on a long hard run doesn’t scream sadness, but sometimes it is.
Fight or flight. Those are our options, right? As Americans we are good at fighting, at anger. In fact, I think we are so good at fighting and anger that it fills in when for us when we don’t know how to express what we are feeling. Feeling scared? Get angry. Pride? Anger. Sadness? We might be the best at hiding and rebranding our sadness as something else. Substance abuse and self-medicating and eating and consuming do well at hiding sadness. Whole generations of Americans were and are still sad about Vietnam and 9/11. Those two events alone are responsible for most of our government spending year after year. And I would venture that most visits to Target and Wal-mart and Amazon are driven by the loss or longing for something like acceptance or community or status. We even have a term for it, retail therapy. Our economy is based on the idea that spending will make you feel better, if only for a short while. We are sad about our bodies, about our jobs, about disappearing friendships, and a world changing too quickly. We are sad about loss. Sad about the distance between expectation and reality. Everywhere I look, I see evidence that we as a society, as a species, are wrestling internally and individually with sadness. But we still can’t say that to each other, can we?
Tonight, its storming outside. The loves of my life are sleeping in the next room. Illuminated by the pulses of lightening, the rain drops race down the window pane beside me. The glass reverberates with the growling thunder. I’m writing from a place that is warm and dry. A place of safety and comfort. I appeal to gratitude to lift me from this bone deep sadness. I appreciate the fates which, like a game of cosmic Plinko, have landed me in a time and country and with a language and a family and an education to be able to navigate 40 years plus years virtually untouched by most forms of hardship. Gratitude is usually my magic bullet. Re-centering and focusing on my present and my people often helps. But tonight not even that is working.
I had a friend once who named my waves of sadness. Alligators, she called them. She said some people just have creatures who come up from the depths every now and again and try to pull them down. And I think that’s right. Because while I can laugh with my wife and boys at the dinner table, I can be healthy and run, and I can spend time with friends and love my life and I can also be sad. So for this New Year, I am going try to sit with this feeling when it surfaces. No running, no wine, no Netflix, no music, no Amazon, no anger and no sarcasm to drown or avoid or numb it. Just me and and the quiet acceptance of this storm. I don’t know if I’ll ever understand these sharp toothed visitors, and maybe I’m not meant to. They rarely overstay, and soon I will feel more like myself again. Tomorrow I will keep pursuing a life that brings meaning and will try again to let go of the absurdity of it all.
And someday soon, I know the words will return.
Be good and keep in touch.
(I started this post in December 2019, and it has seen no fewer that 30 revisions. I want it to see the light of day, even if I’m still not entirely happy with it. I’m finding it more and more important these days to express how we are doing, not just what we are doing. I hope you are safe, and you know that you matter.)
Most of us exist for most of the time in worlds which are humanly arranged, themed, and controlled. One forgets that there are environments which do not respond to the flick of a switch or the twist of a dial, and which have their own rhythms and orders of existence. Mountains correct this amnesia. By speaking of greater forces than we can possible invoke, and by confronting us with greater spans of time than we can possibly envisage, mountains refute our excessive trust in the man-made. The pose profound questions about our durability and the importance of our schemes, They induce, I suppose, a modesty in us.
Robert MacFarlane, Mountains of the Mind: Adventures in Reaching the Summit.
So there I was… In Africa… Inching my way through an aggressive headwind to the summit of a 19,000ft extinct volcano. Sounds glorious doesn’t it? I wish it was. With each raging gust, I could feel dust and wind-kicked dirt plastering itself to my face and driving up under my contact lenses. The mouthpiece of my Camel-Back had frozen shut around 3AM. Even if it hadn’t, it too was caked in prehistoric dirt. I can’t overstate this, I was positively miserable and negatively existing. I had had enough. I wanted to let my legs go, collapse, curl into a ball, and fall asleep. I didn’t want to quit, but I wanted to stop. I’ve questioned my resolve in training and races for almost three decades, and I know the difference between hurting and being in distress. I was beyond hurting, well into suffering, and approaching distress. That hour between 4AM and 5Am was the most difficult one I’ve ever endured. It took all my energy to force the next step. I focused on watching for Hilary’s boot print in the shifting sand and stepping on it the moment after she vacated the space. When she stepped again, I planted my foot exactly where she had.
There were several times I wanted to signal to Kevin on the switchback when he would be sure to see me. After one particularly hard straight, I started to but as the moment came, I had the briefest moment of clarity… I can’t ruin this for her. There is nowhere to stop here. And if I decide to descend I would split the party, and if she or the guides were even as remotely as miserable as I was, I knew we would all turn back. Our story would be the same as the majority of hikers who failed to summit. So over the last hour I didn’t find motivation in thinking about the money spent, or the time, or the personal commitment to the endeavor. I only cared about not being the reason that Hilary didn’t get to to the summit. It never ceases to amaze me what we become capable of when we act in the service of others. I’ve seen it time and again in athletics. Those who focus on the success of others find physical and emotional reserves that are un-accessible compared to working for oneself.
So it would be a bit of a laugh later to learn that she too was suffering in extreme and was only maintaining her phenomenal pace because she was terrified of slowing me down and preventing me from reaching the summit. Six days before she didn’t exist to me, just one of the other 7.5 billion faces in the world. And now after a few shared conversations, cups of Kenyan tea, and kilometers walking together, we were choosing to suffer to see each other’s dream actualized. Stranger things. Literally.
Just after 5AM we left the scree field behind and found a bit of shelter between a series of jagged boulders. I could hear Kevin yelling up ahead when Naom grabbed my arm and put his hooded head to mine and joined Kevin singing:
Jambo, jambo Bwana (Hello, hello Sir) Habari gani (How are you?) Mzuri sana (Very fine) Wageni, mwakaribishwa (Foreigners, you’re welcome) Kilimanjaro, hakuna matata(Kilimanjaro, there is no problem)
They would repeat this several times with growing intensity as if challenging the wind to drown them out. Confused, my headlamp traced up trail and there in front of us was 12 foot battered wooden sign with yellow lettering. Congratulations. Gilman’s Point. Kevin hugged Hilary and then me, and then all of us, like castaways on some extraterrestrial island planet who have spotted a rescue ship, embraced and danced like idiots in the pre-dawn light. I snapped a photo and in the 20 seconds that my hand was exposed to the cold and wind it began to throb with pain. On the discomfort continuum, it skipped cold and numb altogether and went straight to god-forsaken, ice-in-the-veins, danger-level pain. Kevin and Hilary were trying to hide from the wind further up the trail, and they turned to beckon us. I was confused. In my head I was shouting. We made it! Shouldn’t we be going back down now?! Why are we going on?! I can’t feel my hand, you guys!!! Behind layers of Gortex, Naum read my panicked expression, and a few steps later in the shelter of a rock face he took me by the arm again, leaned in, and in his best English shouted “Where you want to go, it’s further than you think.” The wind whipped his words up to the top of the the troposphere. I knew what he meant, but I also heard the truth he spoke (either intentionally or unintentionally). We were going to Uhuru Peak. We were not settling for most of the way.
Arm-in-arm, Naum and I hiked a stride behind the others. The sky brightened ever so slightly, and brought with it hope. The wind was as relentless as ever, but being able to see beyond the reach of my headlamp somehow improved the experience. I wasn’t less miserable, but I could see a world that looked almost familiar. To our left, the top of the last of Kili’s legendary glaciers stood at attention. To our right the sky slowly bled an icy golden light. And an hour after celebrating at Gilman’s, we approached the highest point on the continent. It was a lonely monument weathered and waiting for the day’s first light and the pilgrims the it was sure to bring. I was both enthusiastic and exhausted as we posed for pictures. Behind Kevin and Naum, we could see a procession of headlamps making progress up to our desolate summit. I did my best to pry my frozen face into a smile. I wondered what day it was? Saturday. I was pretty sure. The first full day of winter. And somewhere down below, my family and the rest of Africa was stirring.
For over six hours we toiled in darkness, and for fewer than six minutes we stood to appreciate the beauty of that labor. That’s the way it is though, right? Eleven years spent teaching to what end? Tens of thousands of miles run, for maybe a few moments of fleeting joy and a bit of memory? Yes. In all it’s forms. We must continue to fulfill the human fate by challenging ourselves and conquering that which we struggle against. By touching that signpost 19,341 feet above the sea in an environment hostile to life, I bested a familiar enemy; myself.
As we strode down the scree and frozen rock, our faces reflecting the light of the rising sun and our euphoria. The wind continued to howl, but who cared now? We passed those who were on their way up, and we congratulated, and we encouraged, and we cheered, physically and emotionally buoyed by the ultimate form of contentment, the kind that is born from achievement. In 20 minutes we covered distances had taken over an hour. At Gilman’s we encountered a larger group just climbing over the rim. They were exhausted and hid from the wind behind the rock face just as we had earlier. On the other side we saw for the first time the height and length of our ascent. There at the foot of the mountain was Kebo Camp, 5km away and 1km down. In between boulders and in embrace of the strengthening sun we sat and enjoyed frozen candy bars and shared the only unfrozen water bottle. We laughed and sang and recalled the thoughts and moments which lingered with us.
By 9AM we were receiving a hero’s welcome in camp. Enthusiastic high-fives, hugs, and cheers in both English and Swahili made me wonder if the crew were doubting our chances as much as I was. We ate eggs and pancakes and changed into lighter clothing before continuing to our last camp at Horombo. Hilary and I laughed and sang the whole way. We enjoyed the pull of gravity, richer oxygen levels, and promise of a cell signal at our final camp. That night we savored our meal and recalled the long day’s events. We also celebrated the fact that Erin was still pregnant. I hadn’t missed it. The temporary amnesia produced by our sleep deprivation even allowed us to dream of an assault of Mont Blanc later this year. We were very tired, but I’m open-minded and optimistic about the chances.
Day 7 covered 20km (12 miles) from Horombo to the Marungu Park Gate. There we were greeted by tour buses and day-hikers from every corner of the earth. I felt a swell of pride at my grime covered face and dusty clothes even if the tourists turned in disgust. Hilary and I congratulated each other again, and while the joy of accomplishment was still firmly resting on my internal trophy shelf, I also found I was a bit sad to be leaving the experience and people behind. I want to believe I will be back, “but knowing how way leads on to way…”
As a child I spent a lot of time in the natural world. By the time I was the age of my eldest son, my friends and I were climbing trees, camping out on the 4th of July, building forts and fighting imaginary foes in the fields and woods behind our homes. From third grade on we walked together over a mile or so to the elementary and later the middle school through the same Maine forests and elements. In high school, cross country running and ski practice and racing took us on trails around the town, county, and state. And once we even successfully convinced our A.P. environmental science teacher to let us spend a school day in the town forest “surveying.” I genuinely enjoyed being outside shoveling snow or stacking fire wood or rigging up a makeshift zip line. But something happened in the 20 years since. While I still I enjoyed nature, I have had to bypass the anxious questioning part of my brain to get out there. How cold will it be? What happens if I get wet? Is it really worth it? I’d opt for treadmills and postponing outdoor activity if the weather or environment wasn’t conducive to optimal enjoyment. This wasn’t always the case. But at some point as I grew older I chose a human comfort level over an existential one. The security of the predictable outweighed the unstable possibilities of the world out there.
I still get out and run on trails from time to time, and I know how to enjoy a hike with my family, but these are the exceptions. This trip rekindled a long forgotten enjoyment of the mountains and being exposed to their elements. I’m humbled by the experience, and now I’m actively looking for my next adventure before this feeling wanes again. Mont Blanc anyone?
A minute too heavy or too beautiful has weighed on me for a long time.
Aime Cesaire, And the Dogs Were Silent
Every few years, usually when I least expect it, I experience a recurring nightmare. These aren’t exactly the same dream, but rather different versions of the same idea. I’m with friends or family on some adventure in the wilderness. We are enjoying the sunrise or camp fire and the feeling of being out there. Inevitably we find ourselves moving up above tree lines. The walk, hike, or run steadily climbs to the point where the steepness of the grade prevents me from going any further. In fact, I find that I can’t even get back down. I’m holding on to the tall thin grass patches or precarious boulders watching the others move on ahead or staring down at the incomprehensible distance to the valley below. I’m not on a cliff nor am I rock climbing and there are no ropes or harnesses. I’m simply leaning on to the side of a mountain hoping that its gravity will prevent me from tumbling back into oblivion. And this is where I stay, unable to catch up with the others, unable to slide back down to a more horizontal and stable ground. The dream ultimately ends with my white knuckles either letting go or the grass or rock giving way, and my body free falling off the mountain. Nice, yeah?
Now, I’m no psychoanalyst, but I don’t think you need to be in order to interpret the fears and desires here. Sometimes I can be a bit over-ambitious. I bite off more than I can chew, and then I chew like hell to prevent choking on my own aspirations.
And while it helps that I have the All-Time Greatest spouse in my corner to save me from myself, it doesn’t nullify the anxiety I feel when something big is looming. It has become a bit of a running joke between us. A supervisor once told me that I can do three things, but I can only two of them well. I’ve spent the last 20 years trying to prove him wrong to no avail. We thought Africa might break this cycle, and for a while it did as we were focused on getting our bearings. But with the New Year came new dreams. Kenya. Ultra-Marathoning. Writing (and publishing) a book. Finishing the graduate degree (that just won’t die). Climbing Kilimanjaro. To complicate these intentions we combined them with her work and travel schedule, raising two boys, and being pregnant. What we have here is our best attempt yet at finding life’s tipping point to entropy.
So one month before our due date, I loaded a large waterproof duffel bag with outerwear, and made Erin promise not to have a baby before I returned. While there was confidence that the kid wouldn’t show up early, I left the full name on a piece of paper tucked in the drawer of my running gear (Erin decides when we have kids, I get decide what we call them). I felt scattered leaving this time, and it resulted in some interesting packing choices. I remembered books, four paperbacks to be exact (only one of which I finished, The Dream Peddler), but I forgot a water bottle. I packed snacks, but had to buy a headlamp at the airport. And I had running shoes (just in case), but left behind hiking gators. The airport and first flight went smoothly (by African standards), and I soon found myself in Nairobi boarding a small propeller plane to Arusha, Tanzania. I worry my kids will never know the pleasure of some of the finest ways to travel: the thrills of driving stick shift, being rocked to sleep on a sail boat, or the terrifying big drops that prop planes experience on the whim of mountain thermals. Nothing reminds you that you are alive quite like the feeling that you are about to die.
A driver from my climbing company (Team Kilimanjaro, highest possible recommendation) was waiting to take me to the the small but comfortable Zawadi House Lodge. The drive to Arusha was about 45 minutes of picturesque sunset over green pastures and farms. Tanzania is the fourth African country I’ve visited, and it was by far the cleanest. The government banned plastic bags and is making progress on recycling and reducing single use packaging. As we drove I couldn’t help but notice the difference from South Africa in this regard. Dinner the first night was a lonely bowl of chapati and vegetables at the hotel bar. It seemed that I might be the only guest staying there.
Of all of the adventures on the calendar this year, Kilimanjaro was the one I was most looking forward to, but maybe not for the reasons that you might think. In Kenya I sought a specific feeling, one from years ago, of the delight in exhaustion and of the body’s capability to adapt. I found it in the boundless world-class talent and camaraderie of the training group. In Paris with 20 other writers, I sought affirmation of my work and effort. But coming to Kilimanjaro solo during the low season was for something else. So eating alone in an empty bar was expected. In fact until only a month ago, I was set to hike alone too. This might sound sad to you, but actually it was the opposite. If there is any aspect of modern life that I would change, it would be America’s obsession with time. More specifically, that time is money and that time not spent being productive is money lost. I wanted to go somewhere that time (or maybe my age) couldn’t reach me. I love my wife and family more than life itself. But to be the best husband and father I can be, I also I need to hit the reset button on who I am every so often. There are better months than June to climb Kili. It’s the rainy season. It’s winter. The park, especially above 2500m, is mostly empty space. But what better place to allow thoughts to come and sit and stay awhile without rush or distraction or the omnipresent urge to connect and share? So I sat there at the bar alone, drinking a Kilimanjaro Lager and took in the last light of day and welcomed the freedom that night brought knowing that there was no place I had to go, there was nobody I had to be, and there was nothing I had to do.
On Sunday, I ventured into Arusha for some last minute items. The way to get around Arusha is on the back of motorbike which can be a bit intimidating at first, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll never want to ride by taxi again. At the top of my list was Diamox, a drug used to ease the symptoms of altitude sickness. South Africa prohibited it’s use for anything other than glacoma, but the pharmacy in town sold me ten tablets for $2.50. Deal. On the way to the pharmacy I had spotted the Cultural Heritage Center. Walking back to it was well worth the time and effort. I spent a couple of hours marveling at the fantastic works of art in their collection. Photographs of the Maasai, bronze sculptures of wildlife, hand-carved wooden furniture, and paintings with brilliant explosive colors. After a massive lunch portion of the Center’s amazing curry, I hopped onto another motorbike and headed for the Maasai Market. This is a bit of a racket and tourist trap, but you can bargain freely here, and I was channeling my inner Anthony Bourdain by this point. While the stalls are each fairly similar in product and the interactions with the merchants can feel a bit patronizing at times, one young man was able to coax me into overpaying for a painting for my kids. He was funny and personable and he earned it.
That night at the hotel, my guide joined me for a pre-hike gear check. His name was Harold, and he has stood on the summit of Kili over 400 times in the last 14 years. When I asked it if ever gets old, the smile lines around his eyes creased with energy. “Never. Never. It always feels like the first time.” This was my kind of guy.
The next morning the bus arrived at 8AM, and I meet our assistant guide Kevin and our “stomach engineer,” Naom. Most of the porters speak very little English, but they are smiling and happy to shake hands and take a group picture. We climb on, and I look around. Twelve staff for two hikers. The old VW seats 20 or so but with our gear on the roof and in the back seats everyone is packed in for the four hour drive to the Rongai Gate. It’s at this point I meet my fellow climber. (Side Note: I can’t lie. I was a bit disappointed when I learned that another climber had signed up. I thought I wanted complete solitude on the mountain. I was wrong, but only because Hilary turned out to be such an outstanding human being.) We immediately hit it off, and our conversation ebbed and flowed naturally for much of the bus ride. She was an American and living overseas for work much like we were. This was her first trip to Africa, and while she is over a decade younger, she is an accomplished traveler, athlete, and academic so we had lots in common. Over the next seven days we would kindle a friendship that I’m certain will last through the years.
Day one on the Rongai Trail took us 7km (4.5 miles) from 2300m (7,500ft) up to the Simba Camp at 2700m (8,800ft). It was a gentle grade on a well maintained trail that my kids could have easily handled. Along the way we would meet one of only a few other hikers in the park. He was a German who worked in IT and was hiking solo on the much more arduous five day ascent. We exchanged a brief but pleasant conversation and went our own way. Simba Camp afforded a great view of both the summit and the Kenyan valley below. We were elated to finally be on our way, but as I went to sleep that night I felt anxious about the days ahead.
Day two took us 16km (10 miles) further into the park and another 1km higher to 3700m (11,800ft). The hike was long, but not difficult with a mid-day lunch break at Second Cave campsite. The air was noticeably cooler and dryer here than at any previous point. The camp was well above the clouds and afforded both a supremely enjoyable albeit cold sunset and sunrise. Our food was ample and surprisingly delicious for trail grub. Breakfasts included omelets or hard-boiled eggs, porridge, and coffee or tea. A couple of times we were treated to pancakes and jam, which was always a sure sign of a good day. Lunches started with soup (cucumber or leek or butternut) and always had noodles or rice and a hearty vegetable sauce. Dinners were often similar to lunches in that there was soup, but they also usually included a meat like chicken or sausage or tuna. All meals also included fresh fruit. I can’t overstate how impressed I was with Naum and his menu. In fact, I felt guilty eating as well as we did until I learned that the crew were eating the same meals we were. Living in South Africa (more so than at any other time in my life) I understand the inequities of the world in which we live. We earnestly wrestle with effective ways to act to remedy these inequalities around us. But on the mountainside, imagining the men outside the mess tent eating less or worse than we were was a stomach turning thought. When we asked Harold, he assured us again that as a guide his staff never went to bed without the nourishment they needed.
This is the history of mountaineering though, isn’t it? Usually white affluent westerners hiring local men for dangerous expeditions and treating them as less than equals. We ate and hiked and slept separately from the porters, our only interactions were brief recognitions in camp or when they came flying up the trail overloaded with gear. I genuinely wanted to know them, to hear their stories. The divide felt like a bridge too far. In my life I’ve rarely, if ever, participated in an endeavor which felt so like a colonialist practice. Or maybe I have, it was just better hidden. Where were my running shoes made and by whom? How about that new phone in my pocket? The house I live in? The food on my table? I wasn’t climbing that mountain fueled by my own sheer resolve. Quite literally everything I needed was carried up there by someone making approximately $6 a day. Everything I ate was cooked by someone making much less daily than the average American fast food worker. While watching the last of the sun’s light race up the mountain behind us, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this wasn’t as much of an accomplishment as it was the accomplishment of privilege.
While day three would be a short hike in distance (4km, 2.5 miles), it would add another 600m in elevation gain over rougher terrain making it much more difficult than the previous day. The Mawenzi Tarn Hut was at 4315m (14,150ft), and Harold anticipated that we might have trouble sleeping as neither of us had ever been in that thin of an atmosphere. After arriving at camp, Harold and Kevin refilled our water and pressed us to continue to climb up Mawenzi for another 30 minutes. In the clouds and jagged peaks we sat and waited for our bodies to acclimatize as best they could. Hilary broke out a deck of cards, and there at 4580m (15,000ft) we played war with one cold had exposed and the other buried in our jacket for warmth. Descending back to camp we found the sun set painting the mountain walls and scree red and gold. That night I didn’t sleep well. The wind was violent at times and the cold air froze in my nostrils. Erin suggested that I pack a hot water bottle and to have the crew fill it with boiling water before bed. I think that was the only reason my toes didn’t freeze off that night. At some point in the early morning the wind died down, and I drifted off for an hour or two.
When I opened my eyes the tent betrayed the departure of night and arrival of the early morning hour. I put my boots and jacket on (I wore my pants, long underwear, shirts, and hat to bed) and stumbled to the outhouse. After a quick pit stop, I climbed up on the rocks to the east of the campsite. In the brutal still and quiet mountain air, a spark of a sun emerged in the east. I looked back at the camp in the shadows behind me and felt the first rays of sun awaken a feeling of gratitude and presence. In that moment I crossed some invisible line and found myself someplace I never thought I would be. I thought of the meandering trail of my life over the last 40 years. The decisions I thought would make or break me weren’t the ones that ultimately mattered. The ones I barely thought on were the ones of real consequence. I thought about the people and the work which defined me much more than the classes or degrees. I thought about Maine and West Virginia and Tennessee. I thought about Oxford, Bates, and Belmont. I thought about how the failures that I continue to carry with me are not academic or professional or monetary, but are what George Saunders calls “failures of kindness.” The failures to respond humanly to the person in front of me are much heavier and taxing than anyone told me at 10, 18, or 25. And I know I didn’t have to come to the mountains to arrive at such a place, but standing there watching the sun dawn, I felt like I had traveled from where and who I was both literally and figuratively.
I hadn’t really slept, my fingers had crossed from cold numb to cold painful, and I couldn’t take a deep breath, but the thought carried me to another place, to a vantage point where I could see my life accordion out behind me. The golden light of sunrise and reflection lasted two minutes, and then the moment was gone.
Walking back to camp I felt a like I had finished a book or another year teaching. I felt a little taller and bounded from rock to rock. Yayha, one of the porters, greeted me with a hot tea and an even warmer smile.
“Habari za asubuhi! It is a good morning.” He said with a heartfelt emphasis on “good.” We both looked to the east.
“Asante sana. Yes. It is a good day.” I replied. And I felt it. And I think he did too.
Within an hour we had broken camp and moved out across the Martian landscape on day four. The sun was warm, but a stubborn wind kept us from uncovering our skin. We moved west to the Third Cave campsite. Surprisingly, we were descending again to 3900m, and I think everyone was looking forward to sleeping better with more oxygen. Cave Three was at a crossroads where trails extended in cardinal directions. Here we met another hiker, an Aussie teacher who lived in Malawi. He would prove to be the last person we met before our decent from the summit.
After dinner, Hilary and I solved all of the problems facing American public education. The idea basically is that private companies should earn certification labels for participation (either directly or indirectly) in support of schools in much the same way that buildings and infrastructure projects earn LEED certification for environmental design and efficiency. I wish I could take credit for the idea, but it came around organically through the question and response portion of our dinner. She was feeling better after a bout with nausea and was proving to be the perfect hiking companion and a good friend. We completed crosswords, played cards, sang favorite songs, and enjoyed several really engaging conversations. I grew to appreciate having someone to learn about and to think deeply with.
On day five I really struggled with the hike in a way that I hadn’t before. My legs were fine, my lungs were solid, but I had a headache behind my eyes that no amount of water or rest could shake. I asked Harold if I should start the Diamox that I bought back in Arusha, but he thought that I was doing really well and without other symptoms I shouldn’t add the upset stomach and risk dehydration this late. He was right, and my body adapted by lunch the at the School Hut Camp (4800m, 15,750ft). The wind had grown relentless, kicking dust up into our eyes and ears and shaking the tents with reckless abandon. The forecast was for the conditions to degrade further with temps plummeting and the gusts to strengthen. At our pre-summit meeting after dinner with Harold we reviewed the timetable and did a gear check. Tonight would drive temps deep into the winter side of freezing. I don’t know how Hilary was feeling, but I was anxious. I was also second guessing the Diamox decision, anticipating another headache on the way up in the morning. Back in my tent I stowed the clothes I would wear down into the bottom of my sleeping bag along with the hot water bottle. Warm clothes are infinitely easier to put on than cold ones. I tucked my contact lens solution, phone, and backup battery in the bag too. My Camelback res would have to fend for itself. As I slid down into the bag liner fully clothed, the cover image of The Mitten, a children’s picture book I once owned, popped into my head and made me smile as the wind continued to try and wrestle the tent away from under me.
Day six actually started at 11PM on day five. I slept about for an hour as the wind shook the tent with an anger that bordered on savagery. Dressing with the hot water bottled tucked in my shirt to glean the last of the warmth was easier than expected. I packed my mostly empty carry-all bag for the porters to take to rendevous at Kebo Camp. For the record, on top I had on a 250G merino Smartwool long sleeve, a Cloudveil Run Don’t Walk halfzip, a Polartec 300 heavyweight windpro fleece, a Rab Zero G down jacket, two Buffs, and an L.L. Bean Gore-Tex Guide jacket. On bottom I had Smartwool underwear, Nike running tights, Smartwool 250g baselayer pant, Craghopper pants, and Mountain Hardware windproof/waterproof full-zip pants. Along with Black Diamond mountain mittens, wool cap and socks, I was ready to go. At the mess tent I ate two bowls of porridge, an omelet, and a Snickers bar. We topped off our waters, and silently shuffled out into the dense night.
Kevin, our assistant guide, and Naom, the chef, would we accompanying us for the next nine or ten hours. We focused our headlamps to the six feet of shifting sand and scree ahead of us. With Kevin in front, Hilary and I followed step-by-step, and Naum stayed a few meters behind choosing his own footing. Under two hoods and behind my a face buff, I was alone with my thoughts, and I let them come and go as they pleased. Tom Waits crooned “Long Way Home.” I did the math to figure out which of my family and friends around the world were awake and which were asleep. I could hear my heartbeat almost in time with our six-inch steps. I wasn’t thirsty, but I took sips from the mouthpiece to prevent the water from freezing in it or the tube. Every few steps the warmth from my exhalation was snatched by a raging gust and whipped off into the vacuum of blackness. Above us the stars pierced the night sky, cold as knife points. For the first hour our climb was linear, progressing up and across a barren face of the extinct volcano. After meeting up with the trail from Kebo Camp, we started a kilometer of 200 switchbacks, each rising only a few meters above the previous. Below us I could see the headlamps of other climbers. Three or four groups seemed to gain and then recede. As far as I could tell, no one was ahead of us.
Minutes vanished. Then an hour. Then another. In between periods of zoning out, I would conduct a full body scan. What felt cold? Numb? Did I have a headache? Was that blood running from my nose or snot? The scree deadened my legs like no marathon I’ve ever run. Step up and slide back. Repeat. We rested briefly at the mouth of a small cave. On the right side I found the men’s room. A bit dusty, but you couldn’t beat the view. We pressed on past 3AM. The wind grew worse. It was no longer punching in gusts, but steadily leaning on you like an overdue obligation. When it ran up under my hood it carried prehistoric dust, and I had to tightly shut my eyes to keep them from the sandblasting. A dozen of these episodes had eroded my resolve. I wanted to be done. I wanted to be back in a tent. I wanted to sit down. I wanted something warm to eat. I wasn’t too cold or too uncomfortable. It wasn’t hard, but I was overtired and not thinking clearly. I focused on Hilary’s boots and following in her footsteps. If I could just follow her lead…
Never trust someone who has not brought a book with them.”
I’m supposed to be working on my grad school final. But at this moment, I feel that this is a better use of my time. When I email with former students and co-workers and friends back in the states, the conversation will inevitably turn to what we are reading. Last October in Nashville several people asked what I would recommend that they read next. I understand the request, but I also have learned that book selection, like friend selection, is idiosyncratic and often unpredictable. Congressional approval ratings are slightly higher than successful reading recommendations of my favorite books. So with the same size asterisk that is reserved for Lance Armstrong’s cycling accomplishments, I offer my All-Time Desert Island Favorite reads.
*I won’t pretend that these are for everyone, but I enjoyed them or they helped me grow or the voice spoke to me. So here they are in no particular order.
My All-Time Go-To
There are times when you just want to read something good. Not difficult. Not sweet. Not something from the book club shelf. The Passion by Jeanette Winterson is the book I turn to when I need to feel something without thinking too much about it. Did you just hear the collective eye-roll of a couple hundred college students? Yes, I taught this book. Or rather, I prescribed this book, and the students taught me about it. I’ve owned no fewer than five copies. I’ve given away two, and one was destroyed by a friend’s dog (to this day I’ve never been more forgiving). The book was gift from a friend twenty years ago, and I’ve read it close to a hundred times. I’ve highlighted it. Dog-eared it. Underlined it. Quoted it. I’ve given it away. And no matter how many other new and exciting books I pick up, my copy resides firmly on my bedside table.
The Passion is a story about people and what happens to them when what they love no longer loves them. Henri is a simple French farm boy who drinks Napoleon’s Kool-Aid. Make the world France. Bread and circuses. Henri enlists. Of course he’s disillusioned, can you show me a teenager who isn’t? The other character, Villanelle, is a young Venetian woman who works in the local casino disguised as man. She is fascinated by risk and those who gamble it all away without hesitation. But that’s not her. Not until an older married woman sits down to play at her table.
“What is more humiliating than finding the object of your love unworthy?”
– Henri, The Passion
Winterson is a master storyteller. The Passion unfolds in such a way that as a reader you are never sure-footed. She weaves her plot with a command and richness of language which satisfies, but never satiates. The prose is fluid and dynamic, and yet also strangely familiar. All of Winterson’s books read like songs you once knew, revealing the words you’ve long forgotten. I highly recommend Written on the Body and her autobiography, Why Be Happy When you Can Be Normal. Quite simply The Passion is the book that made me want to be a writer. I will leave you with a warning however, if you read this book I will want to talk to you about it for far longer than is comfortable.
A Gateway to the Heebee-Geebees Genre
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman is the book that I have most prescribed to students who want something a little darker, a little more fantastical, and a little more grown-up. I tell them it’s a fairy tale for adults. Gaiman is the best at writing characters we identify with and characters we want to identify with. This is the story of a middle aged man who returns to his childhood home only to experience the return of a long suppressed memory. The book is a powerful recollection of events from his childhood and is full of monsters both real and not. Ocean also has the most fantastic heroine in all of modern literature, Lettie Hempstock. Think Lyanna Mormont from Game of Thrones except even more bad-ass.
The story takes readers back to the age in childhood before reality cemented itself into something more certain. It traces the events of a year of the narrator’s childhood when magic was still possible, but not entirely probable.
“Oh, monsters are scared,” said Lettie. “That’s why they’re monsters.”
If you like Ocean, I would recommend Neverwhere, Fragile Things, and Coraline after. And while I liked American Gods, I realize it’s not as universally appealing as these others.
The Best Book/Movie Combo
In 1996 The English Patient film won nine Oscars. And as good as it was, I still think the book was better. Michael Ondaatje’s masterpiece won the Booker Prize in 1992 and is simply fantastic in the same way as listening to U2’s Joshua Tree or watching baseball in October. Some things just can’t be improved upon. The novel checks all the boxes: Impending war, forbidden love, espionage, the pangs of memory and loss. I just bought another copy, because somewhere along the way I have given away the previous four or five. If you haven’t seen the movie, I beg you, read the book first. You won’t be sorry, and the movie will be all that more striking for it.
The Best Guilty Pleasure
David Benioff is better known today as one of the show runners for Game of Thrones and the writer of the next Star Wars movie series. But in between gigs in Hollywood he penned a short novel about the siege of Leningrad. It’s a quick read and page turner in the same vein as The Da Vinci Code. For a couple years after its release the book was in every airport bookshop. The plot is straight forward. It follows teenage Lev after his arrest for looting a dead German paratrooper. He is sentenced to death the following morning, but it spared by a colonel who does so on one condition. Lev (and fellow prisoner Koyla) must return with one dozen eggs within a week’s time. Procuring each egg is a story in itself. They beg, borrow, and steal from Russians and Germans alike. Much like Game of Thrones, this isn’t a book for younger readers as there are encounters with cannibals, rapists, and violent deaths. However, if you’re looking for a book you can’t put down for a couple of hours, you can’t beat this one.
Below are some of the books I’ve read over the last year or so. They might not stand the test of time for me like the ones above, but I enjoyed them and you might too.
Lief Enger – Virgil Wander, Peace Like A River – A new American voice combines a bit of Gaiman’s American Gods and Winterson’s magical realism in a midwest setting. Both books are haunting stories, but each in its own way. Virgil Wander is a unambitious movie house owner “cruising along at medium altitude” when a car accident takes away his command of language and memory. He tries to find himself again, and his journey mirrors that of his rust-belt town.
Emily St. John Mandel – Station Eleven – In a future where flu wipes out 90% of the world’s population, small camps of survivors try to move on from the lives they remember. Without the critical density needed for food or electricity production, they are no better off than then early settlers. One of the best parts of the book is when a survivors tries to explain how WiFi worked to a child born after the world went dark.
Maile Maloy – Do Not Become Alarmed – This Nashville author is also well known for her young adult books The Apothecary and The Apprentices. But in this book, she sets her sights on a more mature topic, the modern American family and the vacation that goes tragically awry.
Nick Hornby – Juliet, Naked, Long Way Down, High Fidelity – I love Hornby’s observational wit and humor, just don’t watch the movie adaptations.
Diane Setterfield – Once Upon A River – The only problem of post-postmodern fiction (besides that term) is the writer’s reluctance to provide satisfactory endings. It’s true with River too. The opening chapters are riveting and carry you like a current deep into the book. But the last 30 pages or so make you wish you had abandoned it. If you can overlook this flaw, it’s a great read with a solid plot around the mysterious loss and return of a missing child two years later. A colorful cast of characters and stories make this an enjoyable read up to the closure. Read it. Change my mind.
Haruki Murakami – South of the Border, West of the Sun, Wind – If you are looking for something different, Murakami is a great place to start. His most famous books are Norwegian Wood, Kafka on the Shore, and the voluminous IQ84, but they are not great starting points. I suggest South of the Border or his non-fiction What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.
The sun is setting now and an autumn cold front is coming in. I know I’m forgetting some good ones, and I’ll regret posting this when I finally get up and go look at my bookshelf. In addition I could write another post solely on books about running, or non-fiction books, or stories about Africa. Books for kids, that would take a week. But maybe someday, after this paper is done.
The cure for anything is salt water — sweat, tears, or the sea.
Last Saturday I ran my first (and probably last?) ultra marathon at the Two Oceans 56km race in Cape Town. It wasn’t what I expected, but new experiences rarely are. Although I had been dealing with a nagging hip injury over the last eight weeks, my physiotherapist delivered me to race week feeling capable of finishing the race. So I set off on Thursday for the Cape with modest athletic expectations and also a sense of relief. The race was here, and I wasn’t as ready as I wanted to be, but this meant that I also could enjoy the experience instead of engaging in the single minded focus that racing requires. I was also a bit happy to leave behind the role of Dad and husband for a weekend. It’s good to get away from who we are every now and again, if only to look forward to coming back.
The two days before the race were intentionally left open for whatever I was in the mood for. I went to the Cape Town Comedy Club with a fellow Tuks runner. I read an entire book (Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield) while eating at my favorite sushi joint (Izakaya Matsuri) three times. I walked around the waterfront unencumbered by the normal pre-race anxiety and watched the waves crash on the breakwater.
Unfortunately for my wife back home, things were not as simple. Our oldest picked up a stomach bug and became so dehydrated that he needed to go to the hospital in the middle of the night. This meant that Erin, at 28 weeks pregnant, had to load up the car with one sick child and one healthy sleeping child and head to the ER with everyone confused and in their pajamas. At 3AM after a couple of IVs and some anti-nausea medicine, they were good to head back to bed. I felt the pang of guilt as I read about the ordeal in the text next morning. Erin is amazing, but even amazing needs to catch a break. By Friday night life was mostly back to order.
At 4AM on Saturday I woke up and made instant coffee. I put the TV on mute and did my physical therapy regiment. I ate two bananas with peanut butter, a mug full of instant oatmeal, and a case of the rather unfortunately named cookies (chocolate oatmeal digestives, they are good, I swear!) It was a fairly normal pre-race routine. For the first time ever I was wearing a fuel belt. I stocked it with Maurten gels and a pack of their sports drink powder, and a couple of packs of Gu ShotBlocks. The belt also had enough room for a phone, so I grabbed my old iPhone (in case I needed an Uber mid-race). In another personal precedent, I carried my own 500ml water bottle rather than relying solely on the race water stops and sports drinks provided on the course. As any knowledgeable marathoner will tell you, the cardinal rule is that don’t do anything on race day that you haven’t done before. That’s solid advice for most important events, but I didn’t really have anything to lose by carrying too much food or a phone or a plastic water bottle, so I ignored the wisdom.
I caught a taxi to the start line and arrived with the rain. 12,000 other runners were there waiting in the darkness. It was quiet but there was an straining energy in the air that was bordering on palpable. It felt electric. I got to my corral at the front and looked back at rows of thousands of faces all wearing the same expression, one of hope and humility intertwined. The singing started a few minutes before the start. I do not know the song or the words, but I felt it lift me above the early morning hour and the cold fat rain drops and the dread of the task at hand. If you know me, you know I normally dislike the crowds and try to avoid being surrounded by lots of people. Being in the corral is usually the most uncomfortable part of a race for me. When the gun goes off, I have no problem bolting for the wide open road away from most everyone. But this experience was different. In those rarefied seconds before the canon fired, I swear the individuals all disappeared and what remained was one movement. The starter counted down, three, two, one… and I heard a great inhalation and felt a sweet release as thousands of heart chambers collapsed in on themselves before ballooning out again. We were off.
We moved through the darkness together to the sound of each other’s breath and urged on by each other’s footsteps. We passed the 5km and then 10km marks. The sun rose slowly over False Bay and illuminated the rock face of the Muizenberg Mountain ahead. We entered the town of Retreat and a complete rainbow appeared off to our right. I don’t believe in signs from the universe, but the coincidence was hard to miss. We took in the sight from end to end. Retreat. This would be the last sanctuary before the hard work started.
And as if Hollywood had scripted it, the sun clouded over as we turned toward the sea. The rain was earnest as we rounded into St. James at 15km. It didn’t dampen the crowds or their enthusiasm, but I was less than excited to see the wind moving over the waves towards us. The fat drops continued to pelt us as we snaked through Kalk Bay and into Fish Hoek. I had finished two bottles of Maurten drink by 21km and tossed the bottle to a kid who was enduring the elements in boots too big and with a smile too warm for the occasion.
Heading west, we left the ocean and the rain behind and started the approach to the massive climb up Ou Kaapse Weg (Old Cape Road for those of you not well versed in Afrikaans). The climb is absolutely colossal at 300m (1,000ft) in four short miles. It has an average gradient of 4% and a max of 8.5%. For the cycling fans that works out to a strong Cat 3 climb. Compounding this is where it falls in the race, miles 17 to 21. You are both literally and figuratively hitting the wall. There are no water stops on the climb. No cheering crowds. Just the South African sun peering down over the peak before you. Heartbreak has nothing on this monster.
As difficult as the climb was, the decent was much worse. The camber and incline made the run down more of a shuffle, and a painful one at that. My feet, ankles, and knees took the brunt of the impact. My quads were just too tired from the climb to buffer the bones and joints. It’s here that the first metatarsal on my left foot started to hurt. At 38km the road flattened out again. The results tell me I passed over a thousand runners in this stretch before the finish, but honestly I didn’t see any of them. I focused on my foot and the flattest and most direct line home. A last climb remained, and while comparatively it was much shorter than the previous, it was no less demanding.
When you look at the course map you forget that you’re a marathon into the race when you reach the foot of the Southern Cross, and it’s two miles up another 4% average gradient. A photographer yelled at me to pick my head up and look at him, but I just couldn’t take my eyes off the next two steps. Coming off the top at 48km (30 miles) I was comforted by two thoughts. First, I had less than five miles remaining and second, that it couldn’t all be up hill. We had to go downhill for most of it. Five miles. I got this. Even if I didn’t have a goal coming in, I also knew there was a special medal for those who completed the race in less than five hours. I had 45 minutes to get to the finish if I wanted a Sainsbury. Easy, right? The funny thing about our bodies after hours of running up and down mountains is that they really really don’t want to run anymore. Each stride takes exponentially more effort.
Suddenly you’re left with your body that can’t love you and your will that can’t save you.
Rainer Maria Rilke, To the Younger Brother
Mustering almost everything I had left, I entered the stadium with my eyes set firmly on the clock and crossed the line at 04:59:21. I say almost everything because what happened over the next 24 hours took the rest of what I had left.
While I had been puddle-stomping and mountain climbing and death-marching in Cape Town, Erin had caught the virus from the boys. She was also headed to the hospital. Back at the hotel I tried to change my flight to later that night. It wasn’t possible. I booked a flight at 6AM on Sunday, it would have to do. I figured she would get the same IVs and anti-nausea meds and be home by dinner. Then came news that she had been admitted to the maternity ward because the dehydration had caused pre-term labor. Are you kidding me? My foot, my legs, my body stopped hurting and my brain started working again. We had a babysitter for the day, but no one to watch the boys over the night. I started thinking of all people I knew well enough in Pretoria to feel comfortable asking for help. Erin’s boss? Gone. My friends and teammates? All in Cape Town with me. The boys’ classmates… all scattered across the lower part of the continent for vacation. In weighing out the pros and cons of moving overseas, this was one of the biggest drawbacks. The lack of family and friends for support in the case of an emergency is always in the back of my mind. After a few misses, I texted a friend from the University of Pretoria who I knew was sticking around to work on the final touches of her Doctorate defense over the holiday. I had only seen her once or twice since the new year, but she had met the boys and she has a caring nature. When I told her the situation, she happily volunteered to spend the night at our house with the them. Within an hour she was there playing and reading and being an awesome caretaker with our kids. She would even hide their Easter eggs.
Trying to sleep at the hotel that night I thought about everything that had happened over the course of that day. More than accomplishment I felt a sense of gratitude. For my aching body that hadn’t broken. For my wife who was spending her second night in a row in a hospital for the sake of our kids. For a friend who would drop everything to be there for us. Every now and again in my life there’s an ocean of feeling that surges up from somewhere deep. Some days it’s tidal, set in motion by the phases of the moon or a change in the direction of the wind. At other times it’s a wake produced by some titanic individual or the current events that move through our lives. Whatever the cause, I never ask for this sea change, and it rarely gives any advanced notice. My entire life I always thought that I was the shore, overcome and at the mercy of the waves. Lying there though, another thought came to me. Maybe I’m the ocean.
Be good and keep in touch.
Postscript- By mid-morning my plane had landed. Erin was discharged and told to rest and hydrate. The boys were eating chocolate. Elise had gone back to work on her defense. Exhausted and sore and certain I was getting sick, I sat down to think. And then to write about the sea.
“He asked could it be worse? Yes, it could! He could be dead! Or have a blood draw with his eyes open!* Or he could eat a poison pretzel. Those are all worse.”
-Finn, responding to Coldplay’s question in “Fix You.” *He had a blood draw for an allergy test a couple months ago. We haven’t forgotten how bad it was.
There’s a legendary story about Paris in the 1920’s. It was the literary hub of the western world after World War I as writers and artists flocked to the city of light. Here two authors who couldn’t be more different met and formed a strong kinship. One was Earnest Hemingway, the brash young American reporter who liked to drink and fight and bluster. The Irishman James Joyce, who the New York Times once described as “the labyrinthine thinker of Byzantine thoughts” wasn’t a natural companion. Joyce was thin, physically weak, had bad eyesight, and was introverted to the point of being called a monk. Hemingway was stout, gregarious and affable, if not also often short-tempered. They did however share a common love for language and drinking. Here in Paris, a long mutual respect formed between the two literary greats.
The legend goes that during a night of intemperance at the Paris Ritz, Joyce was in rare form, baiting other customers with insults from atop his intellectual perch. When one patron had had enough and went after Joyce thinking him an easy target, the Irishman darted behind Hemingway and through his laugh called out “Deal with him, Hemingway! Deal with him!”
True or not, I like this story. It came to mind recently while I was having a serious meeting with the school bus driver and the assistant principal. It seems that on the afternoon in question, our seven year old “Joyce” and five year old “Hemingway” were reviving this act. As the bus driver retold the events leading up to the brawl, I tried not to smile at the thought of it. I probably was though, and it probably didn’t help the situation.
Since the New Year, I have busied myself in two areas. Erin’s work schedule so far in 2019 has taken her to Tanzania, Ethiopia, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Turkey, and Hong Kong. I might be leaving some out. She’s also driven the famed Garden Route, gone on safari, and hiked Table Mountain. Oh, and she’s growing a baby inside of her as we speak. My wife is a boss, didn’t you know? With all that she’s been up to I’ve been the one who on most days gets the boys up, fed, packed, and out the door. In the afternoons I drive the taxi to swimming three times a week. I apply the band-aids, and I remove them too. I play soccer in the garage, I pump up the bike tires. I track down the missing library books, shoes, and the art projects that looked like recycling, but upon further reflection actually weren’t. I go to the birthday parties on weekends and eat the bad cake. I read How to Train Your Dragon every night. And yes, I’m the one to hear from the principal when the boys are in a fight on the bus.
And you know what?
I love every second of it. This is the most rewarding job I’ve ever had. I can count on one hand the number of things I’m good at. Not the things that anyone can do (like burning toast because you push the lever down one too many times), but the stuff that I have a real talent for, is rare. Being a parent to these kids between 5 and 10 years old, that’s my wheelhouse. Diapers, naw. Teenagers? Drama much? No, the Lego-constructing-Nerf-shooting-living-room-fort building years are where it’s at. That’s my parenting sweet-spot.
Other than raising two almost-upstanding young men, I’m also still chasing the same running goals. Still. Chasing. It’s been a long road. Early in February snuggled between Erin’s trips, I was able to steal away to Iten, Kenya for a week of training and make-believe. Some people go to Florida to watch spring training. Some people get back-stage passes to meet their idols. And some people head to Nairobi and get on a small prop plane to Eldoret before getting into a shaky old van for another hour’s drive up into the rarefied air of 2400m (8,000ft) above sea-level. That is me. I packed a bag and set off to see what life is like for the fastest humans in history.
Lornah Kiplagat’s High Altitude Training Center plays host to athletes from all over the world. It has a modern gym, lap pool, and dinning hall. I immediately fell in with a group of Irish athletes. The running was good, but the community and camaraderie were world-class. At night, after the day’s two training sessions, we would retire to the Iten Club, a small coffee house adjacent to the Training Center. Conversations with strangers from all over the world would flow easily as we posted social media updates, updated our training logs, and examined race results on the only reliable WiFi in the area. Some played dominoes, some enjoyed a cup of Kenyan tea, and others recounted stories of excellence or folly. There was usually a soccer game or a horrible 90’s American movie on the lone TV above the fireplace (I’m looking at you Hercules and Xena, The Princess Warrior).
Don’t get me wrong, I loved the running, but there was something special about that time after dinner in the cafe. It reminded me of Oxford twenty years ago. World-class talent on the edge of life-changing discoveries. Nights weren’t late as the next training session was always crouching in the back of our minds. But for a couple hours every evening we conversed in relaxed tones and laughed easily. We found community in the middle of the spartan lifestyle running demanded. And outside on the walk back to my room, the dark exposed more stars than I have ever seen. Between the altitude and the night sky, the entire experience was breathtaking. More than just the training, my week in Iten was filled with these amazing moments of humanness. In athletes 15 years younger than me, I recognized the unmistakable fire that comes from the pursuit of excellence. At breakfast we greeted each other as old acquaintances who were bound together again by common destinations. I don’t know Portuguese or Swahili or French, but the fist-bump is a universal sign for respect, and each run ended with one. If you’ve ever felt the pull of a running dream, whatever your age or ability level, I urge you to go to Iten. I plan to go back someday, “yet knowing how way leads on to way.”
Unfortunately since returning to Pretoria I have picked up a running related injury. Hamstring tendinopathy. It’s more irritating than painful, but it has brought my dreams back down to human size. Run a few times this week. Finish this race. I see a PT every couple days, and we are making progress in strengthening the tiny muscles that have brought the big ones to a halt. I head to Cape Town next week for the Two Oceans Ultra Marathon and have downshifted my goals to simply enjoying the experience. Comrades is only a few weeks behind Two Oceans, and I’m considering withdrawing. I turn 40 next month, and I’m worried this is a precursor of more lameness to come.
If there is any comfort here, it’s that I’m learning that there is an inverse relationship between the amount of physical conditioning I can handle, and the level of gratitude and happiness I feel on a daily basis. So what if I can’t run like I used to? I can read more now. I can write more too. And if I’m looking for an age-group award, I’m still the best Nerf-shooting, lego-creating, fort-building, world-traveling, almost-forty-year-old I know.
“But that life, that time, seems like a dream now, even to me, like some long-dissolved rumour.” – Khaled Hosseini, Sea Prayer
Back when I taught middle school an older community member came to my class every week and gave us one hour of his time. At first I was confused to why he wanted to help, but he told me he only wanted to be useful. After a couple weeks we found a rhythm. He would come in without expectations. He would read to kids in the library. He would review an assignment someone had missed. He would shelve books. He would photocopy. He would sort papers. He would tell students about his work. He would listen to the stories of their lives without judgment. He never asked for anything. He never said the work was beneath his pay grade. He was solely interested in showing up every week and doing what he could with that one hour regardless of how small the effort seemed. Every week for the entire school year, maybe 35 hours total, he was present. I’ll never forget how much that meant to me and to the students he worked with. It was a powerful reminder of the impact that the consistency of purpose can have.
It’s been a year. I deeply miss the kids and my co-workers and the energy we created in that yellow classroom looking out over the trees and traffic of Green Hills. It’s been another year and still the high school kids report at 6:50AM. I’m sure the buses still drop kids off to locked front doors at 6:25AM. It’s been another year and still metro teachers don’t have any form of maternity leave (besides sick days) or even a plan for bettering compensation. Another year of rising housing and healthcare costs. It’s been another year of nickel and diming teachers, prohibiting the use of online fundraisers and removing tax exemptions for classroom supplies. It’s been another year of sexual harassment lawsuits brought against central office and schools. It’s been another year of HR bumbling and school board infighting. It’s been another year, and yet again I think I was present at more board meetings than one of the board members. It’s been another year of half-truths and (while maybe not illegal) unethical behavior from the director.
I’d like to hear from my teacher friends back home that nothing’s changed since we left. But that’s not true. A year later and teachers and students are worse off. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still great work being done, but it’s a result of the sacrifices and the Herculean efforts of amazing people in-spite of the hurdles and problems created by central office and the board. I wish I could say that metro schools are a place I would like to return to, a place where I would like to enroll my kids and to work and grow as a professional. But that’s simply not the case right now. Besides the family of teachers and school administrators I know and respect, there is nothing attractive about the prospect of working there again. Based on the teacher turnover and vacancies, I’m not the only one who feels this way. Three years ago I felt that the district wasn’t moving, a rudderless ship. Now I can see it’s moving in the wrong direction. And as a teacher, a parent, a tax payer, and a voter, I don’t know which is more infuriating. It’s been a year.
“Over the last two hundred years there has been a great improvement in personal and public hygiene and cleanliness; and this was largely brought about by persuading people that the results of being dirty and apathetic in the face of disease were not acts of God, but preventable acts of nature; not the sheer misery in things, but the controllable mechanisms of life.
We have had the first, the physical, phase of the hygienic revolution; it is time we went to the barricades for the second, the mental. Not doing good when you usefully could is not immoral; it is going about with excrement on your hands.” – John Fowles, The Aristos.
I look at these pictures and think about what public education could be, what it should be. Not for I.B. or magnet or charter kids. For all kids. I’m only a day’s travel away from where I taught, but I feel so far removed from the struggles that my teacher friends still endure. I don’t want to, but I still find myself reading the blogs and newspaper articles and the tweets. I still text with teachers and students trying to support and empathize. The reality is that a year later I’m still overly invested in the work of that community like some sort of co-dependant ex-boyfriend. It’s a manifestation of survivor’s guilt I think.
So here is my request. If you have the means, please consider loving on a classroom or a teacher or a kid for the rest of this year. Say thank you by giving a little of your time or a few of your resources or even your attention to the needs of our teachers and students. Choose to donate a book, new or used, each week to a class library, buy a pack of copy paper or tissues or hand sanitizer when you are grocery shopping, or offer to volunteer at games or concerts or arts events. Reach out to specific teachers at your school and ask what they need. One hour a week, one book a month, listen to one student story at a time. As a species we seem to like the myth that big efforts lead to big results. But that’s not how lasting changes happens. I can’t run a marathon because of one good workout. Small efforts over extended periods of time result in big changes. Want to get fit? Don’t go to the gym for eight hours. Go for 20 minutes every day. Want to write a book? Don’t aim for 85,000 words in a week, write a good paragraph every morning for a year. Want to change education? Invest your time and energy in one kid, in one classroom teacher, in one school consistently and repetitively.
This is the only answer I have to frustration that comes from paying attention. In between the distracting news stories, I’m putting my head down and continuing to work where I am. I know that a year from now the board will be the same. The director will probably get a contract extension. Salaries will remain the stagnant. But I also know that those kids you read to, those books you donate, those teachers you support will be better off because of your small commitment to change. Be good and keep in touch.