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.
And I sit with the memory of kings
With only words to criticize
As if I finally found the antidote for pain
Without knowing what that’s really like.
And our actor ends his love song
And all these lovers sit and stare.
If I don’t find peace in the valley
It’s ‘cause there wasn’t any there.
It’s been a while since I’ve sat and stared at this blank page. Part of that has to do with our schedule, but if I’m honest (and I’m trying to be more honest), I’ve been hiding from the blinking curser. It’s a good name for something that taunts you, the blinking curser. Since August we have filled our days with travel and adventure and all the logistics that come with it. As you may know, I recently ran the Cape Town Marathon. As a family we explored Namibia and met members of the San Tribe. Erin summited Kilimanjaro. And last month we travelled the sixteen hours home to the States. Seeing family and friends was refreshing. I didn’t know I needed to be home until I was there. In Pretoria our boys are growing into strong swimmers and starting to enjoy diving and playing under the water not just in it. For them going under water is no longer something to be feared, but rather something that is attractive. While they are getting confident in their own abilities, it’s always nice to resurface, take a deep breath, and feel the sunshine on your face. I enjoy experiencing the silence and other worldliness of being under water too. There’s something in the solitude of the unfamiliar depths, the pressure, and sensation of strength which appeals to me. But you can’t stay there, right? You need to breathe again. That’s what it’s like to go home. Resurfacing. A place where everything feels natural, where you can take a breath before going back down to explore the unfamiliar world and the unknown you.
I have also restarted my work on my graduate degree. I find the work filling my time, but less than fulfilling. I’m still undecided on a return to the classroom, which makes me wonder about the time and energy I put into my Hopkins classes. At some level I know I’m using the school work as a distraction from the real enterprise of writing. I’m good at the academic work and so rather than try and struggle with something I’m terrified of and that I’m not as good at, I fill the void with writing empty papers and conducting half-hearted research. The fact that I’m only three classes away from finishing the program doesn’t help.
The simple fact is that I’ve never written something I’ve been really satisfied with. And I recognize this problem. We are old friends. Of the thousands of races I’ve run, I can only tell you about one that left me completely satisfied. I’m not talking about good customer service satisfied. I mean that in those moments during and after, I was operating at my very limitations. I know on an elemental level that I could not have competed any more resolutely on that day. My muscles and bones and sinew were tested and resolved. I raced to the best of my ability and walked away feeling complete and wholly alive. Over thirty thousand miles and twenty-five years and there’s only one race where it all came together? Yes. I wonder if it’s that difficult to go to that place or if I’m just not that good at getting there? So, when I consider really writing, I struggle with thinking about how many pages and how many words it will take to find the just-right combination that will make me feel the same actualization? What if I can never put those words together? What will I miss or sacrifice while I try?
So I’ve been distracting myself with school and running and anything else I can think of. I’ve avoided the real work and the blinking curser for the last two months convincing myself that tomorrow the words will flow more voluntarily and there will be time to chase the dream of one day having a book on the shelf of Parnassus or the airport must-read mantel or Shakespeare & Co.
Back in Nashville I sat again in front of the class of 2019 for a morning. I’m sure they thought that I was talking to them about being good enough and embracing challenges and the struggle between head and heart and faith and reason. Those words certainly applied to them, but they came to me organically as if after a long growing season they were finally ripe enough to pick and examine.
I know I can replicate the successes I’ve had in the classroom. I know I can be an effective school leader. I know that I’m a really good stay-at-home dad. I know I can get a job in coaching or tech or travel and pay the bills. I know I can continue to run decent marathons and live in exotic lands and be a good me. But my god, I want to be a writer. I want to hurl fiery words out into a dark universe illuminating a path I didn’t know was there. I want to wield a hard language so that people look up from a page and softly say, “Damn.” I want to build worlds and lives out of the endless combination of twenty-six letters, and like D.N.A., I want them to be so vivid that I can’t see me in them anymore. I want to write a book that makes me feel like I did in that race all those years ago, unrepentant and unafraid and alive again.
At a higher altitude with flag unfurled
We reached the dizzy heights of that dreamed of world
Encumbered forever by desire and ambition
There’s a hunger still unsatisfied
Our weary eyes still stray to the horizon
Though down this road we’ve been so many times.
– Pink Floyd, High Hopes
Two weeks ago the family climbed into the Land Rover for our first trip to the Drakensburg Mountains. It’s been a fairly quiet winter here for us, and the opportunity to get out of town was welcomed by everyone. This trip has been in the back of my mind since we first arrived here, and it certainly did not disappoint. Like almost every adventure we take, it starts with running.
Every Tuesday night at the University of Pretoria, a group of runners meet-up to test their fitness on a 4km road loop. Affectionately known as the Tuks time trial, many of the runners use it as a social time to catch up with familiar and friendly faces. Last April after doing some internet research on local running groups I came across the Tuks harriers and decided to give it a try. While there are some real speedsters who sometimes show up, most Tuesdays a core group of 30 and 40-something trail runners and ultra folks amble off the line with smiles on their faces and lighthearted strides. Since returning from Nashville, I have attended every Tuesday night for the camaraderie as much as the workout. The running community, no matter where in the world I am, never fails to be welcoming and fun and great hosts. In this regard the Tuks group is no exception.
In a nice compliment to the run, a campus eatery offers a weekly special dish for those who want to hang around and continue the fellowship. At one of the first post-run dinners, I asked the local and more experienced runners for their South African bucket-list races. I’ve discovered a few races on my own, but I’ve also found that they were hit-or-miss in terms of quality and experience. I know my best racing days are behind me, but I’m on a running streak again for the first time since 2016. I’m enjoying the increase in my milage and getting a few workouts in on the golf course. I feel like racing again, and I don’t know how long this will last, so I want to make it count. Two races, which had been advertised on my social media feed ironically enough, were also on the calendar for some of the others in Tuks. I love how running is an individual sport, yet we can be so easily peer-pressured into races and group training runs by others. So on consecutive Tuesday nights in July, I found myself committing to the Rundela 27km, a road race commemorating Nelson Mandela’s 100th birthday, and the Cathedral Peak Challenge, a 20km run from the base to summit of one of South Africa’s highest peaks.
The road race was long no and tough, but not a problem for my fitness and ability. Trail racing however is a different beast entirely. For the last twenty-five years, I have consistently trained on trails, but rarely raced on them. In high school our cross country team often ran long on the snowmobile trails and power lines and in college I ran at least once a week on the West Virginian hunting trails and endless dirt roads. Later, while coaching at Belmont University I ran most of my weekly milage in the early mornings on the horse trails at Percy Warner Park.
But even with all the miles over rocks and through the mud, I’ve never really had the desire to go racing up mountains and into wilderness. I’m too tall and lanky and my feet aren’t fast enough for the more technical turns. Even so, in 2004 I won a summit race up and down Bradbury Mountain by out-kicking some poor guy who lead the whole way. It’s funny that I think of that as a mountain race because that hill barely qualifies as a mountain topping out at 405 feet (124m). More recently I have seen mixed results in the (highly recommended) Nashville Running Company trail series races. I won a lovely six mile tour of a lesser known Metro park, landed on the podium at the 2014 Dry Creek Half Marathon and was also absolutely destroyed at the vicious 2017 Defeated Creek Half Marathon. So it’s been a mixed bag when it comes to trail racing. You might understand then that I would be a bit apprehensive when registering for the Cathedral Peak Challenge, a 20 km roundtrip climbing more than a mile into the thin air of 3000 meters of altitude.
We left Pretoria late in the morning on Friday and enjoyed the drive south through Johannesburg and towards Harrismith. This country’s landscape changes quickly, and within a couple hours we found ourselves crossing arid and windswept grasslands and descending into an environment that more closely resembles Arizona or New Mexico than what we imagined South Africa would be. Along the back roads into the Drakensburg we encountered dozens of baboons and cattle and goats all watching us with the same curious looks on their faces. We followed the signs till the road narrowed and twisted upwards. Set right against the mountain walls, the Cathedral Peak Hotel is a quaint if not dated resort. Imagine a real-life version of the Grand Budapest Hotel. We checked-in, tipped the eager bellhop, had a quick dinner, and settled in for the night.
Race morning was cool and clear and the summit looked inviting in the distance. I enjoyed two cups of coffee, some crispy bacon, and watched the sunrise paint the peaks golden. I was unsure of what the temperature would be at the higher elevations and decided to start the day wearing a jacket, gloves, and carrying a winter hat. The hotel and race are offering R25,000 for the a new FKT (fastest-known time), and as such, I figured the competition would be at least as strong as the coffee, but I didn’t know exactly how I would stack up next to experienced mountain runners. At the Rundela two weeks prior, I was surprised that my fitness kept me within the top ten for the first 20 km. My training has been much more consistent since the first week of June, but I still didn’t have any indication on how I would do climbing and descending for the next few hours.
With a short blast from an airhorn, the thirty or so competitors started off. Since no one immediately wanted to take the lead on the jeep trail, I strode confidently up the center, opening my stride and hoping someone would follow. In fact I was so focused on the guys behind me, I missed the first turn 300 meters into the race and continued up the wrong trail taking the others with me. An extra 100 meters had past before the call came from behind us that I had gone the wrong way. We turned and did our best to regain our positions at the front. It was difficult passing people on the narrow and technical trail down to the river. Whoops, sorry guys. After the water crossing the climb began in earnest. I didn’t know what position I was in anymore, and it didn’t really matter as the hill kicked steeply up, and it quickly consumed my attention.
Getting everyone back on track.
I really wanted to walk, but I knew the photographer was watching.
I’m on the other side of this hill chasing.
The view was worth every painful step.
The sun was erasing the long shadows and the temperature climbed as we did, steadily and intently. By 4km I had removed my jacket and gloves and by 7km I knew that I should have carried more water. The one liter (the required minimum) would not be enough at the rate I was drinking it. I alternated between running and power hiking on the crazier sections, and I felt like I was making solid progress. The lower parts of the trail were technical, but not overly so. It wasn’t until I reached a section called “Bugger’s Gulley” that I really started to feel the effects of my effort. The last and steepest part of the climb had rope sections and guides stationed to help competitors with the rock face. Here I really had to slow myself and concentrate as the consequences of a misstep were nothing short of fatal. The last 300 meters were more mountaineering than trail racing, and I was not prepared for the hair-raising vertical drops and the rock climbing skills needed to summit. Steadily though and after two hours and eight minutes, I found my way to the top. I summited alone and in fifth place long after the leader, but not long after the others.
The views from the top were absolutely spectacular, and I sat and snacked on a Cliff Bar examining the 360 degree panorama for ten minutes. I texted Erin that I had made the top, and as I was getting ready to descend, another racer, a South African carrying no water, food, or even vest arrived. He was wearing an oversized cotton t-shirt and old Reebok cross training shoes. In his best broken English, he asked for some of my water. I’m ashamed to admit that I hesitated, thinking about the long trail down and the temperature that would only be increasing. Reluctantly I handed over the bladder and straw from my vest. It only took a moment though for the gratitude for all I have and all that can do to return. I looked around at the peaks and the distant valley where the hotel and finish line was located. I saw the helicopter hovering below us, and the vultures circling on the thermals coming out of the valley. I will be ok, I thought. I have everything I need and then some. I can and should be generous with all of it. The race director later told us that the top of the mountain is where everything makes sense, but it is the journey that changes us. Perspective. The 10,000 foot view. I gave the man the last half of the Cliff Bar and wished him luck on his race. I knew that I would be fine in a couple hours. I didn’t need the water as much as he did. And I didn’t need to win or break records or become a jerk in the process either.
I would not have summited without the help of the ropes and support crew.
I cleared the three rope sections again, but I didn’t realize just how much the climb had deadened my quads. Exiting Bugger’s Gulley, each stride was compounding the fatigued muscles, and it was apparent that going down would be much tougher than going up. On the few flat sections off the ridge, I found my stride and ran freely in my highest gear, but that was about the highlight of it. My sweat was drying quickly in the sun and a salty crust had formed on my hat, vest, and lips. I regretted not putting sunscreen on my legs and arms. The helicopter circled as I dropped into the shadow of Orange Peel Gap. There the pain in my quads only steadily increased, and I was forced to slow even more going over the boulders and resign myself to finishing rather than racing the remainder of the trail.
Entering the final kilometer I was pretty much walking toward the finish line with my only concern being breaking the four hour mark. It wouldn’t be fast enough to get on the leader board, but it was an effort I could be proud of. I rang the bell at the finish line and collapsed into a salty and dusty heap. In fact, only the race director offering me an ice cold Coke would get me to sit upright. Two weeks on, I can still feel the deep muscle pain in my legs from that descent. It took me ninety minutes to come down from the peak, the race leader did it in half that time and set a new record in the process, 2:22:00.
I’m certain that we go back to the Drakesburg range. It is beautiful and lonely and pristine. The boys enjoyed rock climbing and Erin spent the morning riding horses through the canyon. There was something for all of us. I’m also certain that I will do more mountain races in the future. For all the suffering during and after that race, I really did enjoy the journey. Next week Erin leaves for her Kilimanjaro attempt. I’m equally proud of and excited for her. When I told my friends at Tuks last Tuesday night about her adventure, they shared this race idea with me.
The first week of this month my family journeyed north to the Pilanesberg National Park. While we had done several smaller driving tours of animal sanctuaries, this would be the first time that we really ventured into the bush. Pilanesberg isn’t originally native habitat though. In the 1970’s the South African government created the nature preserve in the crater of an extinct volcano. Over 6,000 animals were brought in from Namibia in the early 1980’s. Today those numbers top 10,000 including lions, elephants, rhinos, and cheetahs. I think everyone’s expectations were lofty, and we tried to prepare our sons for the disappointment of not seeing any of the elusive Big Five. (Can you name them?) The park is simply massive at 250 square miles and while the roads (paved and unpaved) provide access to most of the area, the odds of spotting one of the three lion prides or a southern white rhino is not always in a visitor’s favor. Secretly I was ok with this. I didn’t want the journey to be a drive-through experience or pre-packaged show that’s the same for every tourist. I would always prefer sitting and waiting and letting nature find us if she wanted to.
We arrived at the Bakubung Lodge in the early afternoon and were immediately impressed with the grounds and rooms. It’s winter and the slow season here, so the lodge had shutdown the boilers for the two rooms we had originally booked. My wife’s parents and our youngest would share a room, and my wife and I and our other son would bunk down in the other. We brought air mattresses for the boys just in case. I’m learning that in South Africa you’d best take care of yourself and be pleasantly surprised when it works out that you didn’t have to. It’s much easier than having any sort of expectations, especially when the term “resort” is used. The rooms were comfortable and clean and quiet. We opened the curtains and doors to the patio to see the park immediately on the other side of an electrified fence. The nature was there too.
For dinner we opted for a braai experience hosted by the lodge in the national park. For me this was the most enjoyable part of the trip. I don’t think the rest of my family found it as powerful I did. They can be forgiven as it was a cold open-air truck drive in the dark to the braai. In addition the food wasn’t exactly American kid-friendly, and the boys were already tired. But as we left the hotel grounds and entered the park gates, a mountainous bull elephant emerged from behind a thicket. It froze in the truck’s spotlight unsure what to make of our commotion and the smell of diesel exhaust. Our driver told us to be quiet in a concerning tone. From its massive head two tremendous tusks reached out and down disappearing into the grass. I judged that it was easily twelve feet tall as turned and sauntered back into the night. When the brush stopped moving, we rolled on. Above the truck a million stars appeared. The drive rattled us around for another 20 minutes before coming to an abrupt stop at a human sized gate. Entering the braai area we were welcomed with a song from eight singers and a drummer. The food was laid out buffet style, and we sat down on benches around long wooden tables. At the center of it all was a warm glowing bonfire. The kids didn’t eat much of the unfamiliar food and were restless for the dessert portion. For them chocolate, whatever its form, is always more appealing than the main course. The camp was protected by a less than intimidating fence and torches, but we were reassured that the animals on the other side wanted nothing to do with the noise or light our group was making. Still I couldn’t help but wonder if somewhere out in the darkness something sat salivating at the smell of grilled lamb, chicken, and beef.
As the moon slowly made it’s way above the surrounding hillsides, it struck me that we were completely surrounded by miles of wild and remote natural wilderness. I huddled close to the inviting bonfire and savored the last of traditional Zulu/Tswana meal. As I warmed by the red coals and watched my kids watch a group of drummers perform, I forget about the world beyond the light of the fire. For over an hour that night my family sat there together, listening to songs and staring into the dancing flames like human beings have done for tens of thousands of years. The drummer’s rhythm and singing ebbed and flowed rising with the smoke up into the star speckled sky. In that moment of holding my family close and removing the anxieties of the modern world, I felt that maybe this one life could be enough. For all the distance and distractions that moving to South Africa has entailed, we are now who we want to be.
The following day we loaded up the lodge’s safari truck for our afternoon tour. After the cold temps the previous night we each wore several layers and hoarded blankets in preparation. The boys tried to contain their excitement and rattled off as many animal facts, relevant or not, pertaining park’s wildlife. Entering the gates in the daylight was exhilarating. Armed with their gift shop binoculars, the boys kept watch as we bounced along a dirt road deep into the heart of the park. In the distance we spotted herds of kudos and impalas. On a ridge in the distance our guide spotted a cheetah. While I agree it did resemble a four-legged animal, from 300m away I wouldn’t bet on correctly identifying it. The afternoon was spent bobbing along in the back of the truck, calling out zebra and giraffes and cape buffalo. On the way back to the lodge we did find a family of elephants crowded near the road and a lone hippo in the tall grass next to a lake. The boys pointed and posed for pictures, and felt a sense of accomplishment. The sun set over the hills and left us with a parting gift of magnificent reds and yellows and finally a deep purple before finally turning on the stars for the night. If our only experience at Pilanesberg was our four hour tour, we would have left satisfied. However, the park held back something special for the following morning.
On day three the lodge and valley was completely fogged over as we made our way to breakfast in the canteen. Bundled in the same clothes as the previous days, we climbed aboard the truck and settled in for a morning of limited visibility. Our guide was in a great mood and tried his best to make us laugh as we re-entered the southern gates. For an hour we drove along mostly in silence looking at the fog sitting heavy on the golden grass fields. In what would be a trip-defining moment for my son, the truck slowed and the guide pointed out a group of elephants to our right. The other people on the truck repeatedly said elephant and pointed to where the bushes moved with something sort of large and gray. Our eldest but not our quietest child then corrected everyone by pointing out these elephants were actually rhinos. The southern white rhinos (not to be confused with the tragically extinct northern white counterparts) are imposing and prehistoric looking animals. About five of them snorted and chewed and slowly bulldozed their way through the underbrush towards the truck. The largest stopped about 20 meters away and gave us a spectacular view of his size and majestic presence. Looking around the faces on the truck, I saw smiles and wonder and bewilderment. Several nationalities were represented on our tour and every single smile betrayed the same overpowering emotion, something between awe and fascination. For just a moment we were all children again, marveling at the raw power and beauty of the animals before us.
With our spirits high and as the fog started to slowly burn off, we continued on the rough dirt road with our eldest chirping about how he had correctly identified the rhinos when no one else did. Within a few kilometers we spotted few cape wild dogs (the original native inhabitants of the park). Just as our driver was pointing out the fact that the dogs were usually an indication of lions, we heard it. The truck creeped forward not more than fifty meters until the sound of lions was clear. The fog had lifted enough to see a hundred meters clearly, and there off to the left of the truck, the western pride, comprised of a dozen or big cats, had just taken down a cape buffalo or a larger kudu for breakfast. Through the tall grass we could see the lions circling and ripping at their kill. We couldn’t take our eyes off of them. As the largest one ate, he kept the others at bay with a sound that I can’t describe, but that I can still feel in my chest. It rumbled like thunder in the distance and inspired a primitive fear. There’s no way to talk about it. I don’t care how good your surround system is, this wasn’t only audible, it was palpable as well. We held our boys a little tighter as the truck maneuvered for a better look at the feasting lions.
Within minutes the pride was on the move again. On big paws and with a carefreeness that bordered on arrogance, they walked out of the grass and onto the dirt road. Our truck followed, rolling in neutral as the cats crossed in front of us and drank from a stream that ran by on our right. By now the sighting had been radioed in and other cars and trucks had shown up to get a glimpse of the digesting cats. Having seen the show and feeling supremely lucky, we moved on to find a mother and calf hippo at the head of the same stream the lions were drinking from. Further down the road a family of giraffes and zebra enjoyed a late brunch overlooking the valley behind us. The sun warmed the metal frame of the truck and we started back to the lodge for lunch. My youngest son sat on my lap, his head bouncing off my shoulder as he gazed out over the foreign landscape as we rumbled along.
I don’t know what this international adventure will continue to hold for me and my family. We are happier here, I know that. The boys have a wide circle of international friends and they love their school. My wife is absolutely crushing her job. I’m content in reading and writing and running a little every day. And for the first time in my life, I’m a father first, not a teacher, not a coach, not a parent who is pulled in too many directions. But in four years time from now will I go back to teaching? Will we find a little American suburb of another artsy up-and-coming city to call our own? Can you go back? Would you? I don’t know the answers yet, but I’m terrified of losing this feeling of aliveness which permeates every aspect of our African days.
What I want is for the two of us to meet somewhere by chance one day, like, passing on the street, or getting on the same bus.
– Haruki Murakami, 1Q84
Returning to Nashville was everything I hoped it would be. I spent my time seeing former students and families and friends. I ate at all my favorite local eateries, and most of all, I could see the city and country that I’ve called home in a new light. I landed in Atlanta on a Friday morning and was immediately witness to a line of frustrated customers and apathetic employees at a Dunkin’ Donuts. People being bothered by the presence of people. Annoyance. Irritation. Anger. When I arrived at the gate for my Nashville flight, I saw it again. Bitterness at our flight being delayed nine minutes because our flight crew was late getting in. As I sat down in my seat for the last leg of my journey, I half laughed. Is this really how I used to go through life? The last twelve weeks I had grown to appreciate the difference between problems and inconviences. Landing back in America I could see it now, and I was a different person because of it. Right?
By mid-morning I was parking at Hillsboro High School. The memory of the double-takes and smiles when I first walked through the door warms my heart. It was the last academic day of the school year and both the teachers and the students were relaxed and happy about their impending freedom. I didn’t head for my old classroom right away. I felt like room 213 wasn’t mine anymore, and I was scared that seeing someone else teaching in there would be like seeing an ex laughing with someone new. You expect it, but you can’t erase that feeling. I wanted to keep my memory of that place, not to make new memories. Geography can be funny in that it can hold on to the echo of the sounds and smells and light, and I guess I wasn’t ready to walk back into that yet. So I settled in the IB History teacher’s room and more than gladly accepted the hugs and the high fives and genuine smiles from students and teachers alike. We told stories and laughed and reminisced. It was a true homecoming and a feeling that would be extended through the ten days at graduation parties, dinners, the state track meet, long runs, and happy hours. I’m warmed on this cold winter morning just thinking about the joy of it all.
That first night I attended a graduation celebration for Addy, a former student and one of the managers for the XC team. I was exhausted after 8,000 miles of travel and nearly 40 hours awake, but seeing familiar and friendly faces energizes and enlivens. I was both inwardly and outwardly happy when my head finally hit the pillow for a solid night’s sleep.
The next morning I had a few hours to polish my commencement address before the second and third graduation parties started. Frothy Monkey on 12th Ave South has long been by go-to study and writing home. I sped from East Nashville where I was staying with a fellow teacher to the popular coffee shop hoping to beat the crowds. Driving again in the US was an easy enough adjustment, although I did try to get into the car on the wrong side several times. Another habit I carried with me from Pretoria was the constant vigilance at intersections. Car hijacking on a Saturday morning in May in Green Hills or 12th South is highly unlikely, but I couldn’t ignore the road intelligence that I’ve worked hard to develop. Drivers in South Africa are bad, but they are making me better at being vigilant and anticipating other people’s dangerous habits. At Frothy Monkey I over ordered on the food and coffee enjoyed every sweet bite while I searched for the right words.
As for the speech itself, I worked on it for three weeks. It was difficult to narrow to a specific topic and then to narrow the topic to the five minutes allotted. After a dozen practice runs, I was still hitting roughly seven and a half minutes. I didn’t know if the jokes would go over, and I felt a bit like a fraud. What gave me any credibility? I was an unemployed English teacher who left the luxuries and modernity of America for a developing country. The only thing I was certain of was my uncertainty. I had asked for this opportunity, but I think what I really wanted was to teach my class again. I wanted to talk with my students, not to formally address 2500 people, most of whom didn’t know me or why I was on the program. This is one of those “be careful what you wish for” lessons that I still need to learn.
In the preparation, I had watched at least a dozen other speeches and stole what wisdom I could from my favorite writers and texts. In the end the final presentation was just over eight minutes. I hoped the administration would forgive me if it felt long-winded. Another week and I might have been able to say more with less. As it was, I’m mostly proud of the product and how it was received. I wish I had been more expressive in the delivery, but I felt the need to rush through to make up for the length. In the writing and sharing, I did feel a sense of closure that I didn’t know that I had needed. Leaving mid-year was right for my family, but as a professional, it left a huge hole in my heart. I was grateful for the opportunity to come back and to see everyone together again. It was a great privilege to see these students head out into the world. You can find a video of the speech recorded by Hillsboro librarian (and jack-of-all-trades) Joyce Claassen on YouTube.
As I’ve said before, this group of students was very special. As their teacher in 7th grade and 9th grade, their 10th grade AP and 11th grade IB English and Theory of Knowledge, and 12th grade capstone, we’ve been around the block a few times. I will forever be an advocate for looping. In fact if I head back to the classroom, that might be a condition for my employment. For five years we shared our laughter and tears and wins and losses and accomplishments and disappointments.
I watched them grow out of athletic socks and baggy cargo shorts and braces and awkwardness into confident, knowledgable, and capable human beings. We traveled to Greece and Turkey and Ireland and the UK together. We ran countless miles together. They threw me a baby shower for my first born and made meals for my family when my second born was in the NICU. They babysat my kids and kept me working hard even in the face of the most absurd conditions. Today, thousands of miles apart, I still feel that we are a community. The love and passion I brought to the class was a direct reflection of the love and passion they shared with me. They made me a much better teacher and parent and friend. Everyone was appreciative that I made the long trip home for graduation, but really I was the one who was grateful.
While cash might have been more useful as a graduation gift, I am still an unemployed teacher (until I can sell some books anyway). Instead, I hand picked paintings and jewelry and accessories from South African artisans at our local market. In buying almost forty paintings by Gab Duru, I hope that not only am I showing the students and families how much I admire them and appreciate the positive impact they’ve had on my life, but that we are also helping to make a difference in the life on an artist. If you would like a piece of Mr. Duru’s art, please feel free to reach out to me and I will make sure it gets back to you in America.
That week in May I attended ten more graduation parties. The warm feelings continued and as my schedule filled with coffee dates and whiffle ball and last runs in Percy Warner, I tried to fit more and more in. Without noticing the effect it was having on me, I started overbooking my limited time. Everyone’s request was a priority. I would show up late apologizing only to have to leave early or risk being late to meeting with the next friend or student. Luxury problems. I failed to deliver all the graduation cards and gifts. Regrettably, I had to miss one graduation party altogether. Over the week I would cut out time for meals and honk at traffic and drive like a South African taxi and try to make everything go faster. I had transformed back into the impatient American who always felt behind the clock. It was amazing. In this environment, my former self and habits re-emerged. Even now, three weeks removed I still feel a hint of disappointment that I couldn’t achieve all that I wanted in my ten days. At the end of this amazing adventure in a few years’ time, I wonder if I will be able to hold on to the South African pace of life and peace of mind that I’ve found here. Is it me or is it the American environment which drives people to hustle and rush and be impatient in the name of getting just one more thing done?
I’m happy to be back in South Africa, but I miss those people left behind. I wish there was more time for laughter and stories and sharing meals. Call it whatever you want: Fellowship, Community, Family. It is what we all seek. As my youngest son says, “It fills my bucket.”
So what is next for the class of 2018? We are all awaiting news of their IB scores and results in July. Most are headed off on new adventures next fall. Some are headed to their first choice of universities with scholarships in hand. My heart is with those who are more disappointed by how their senior year concluded. Navigating the world of financial aid and college acceptance requirements is difficult and often disappointing for all involved. We like to tell ourselves that anything is possible, but the reality isn’t always true. Or rather, that what’s possible isn’t always an easy or straightforward path. Regardless of the individual situations, I have the utmost faith in all of the students who walked across the stage on May 23rd. They are good human beings. I know they can change their world because they have already changed mine. I’m planning a trip to Kilimonjaro next year, and I hope some of the students and families will be able to make it. Like all of our adventures, it will be open invitation. This isn’t the end. We still have mountains to climb.