“Time passes; only memories remain.”
There are no shortage of discouragements in the world. You don’t need to look for them—they’ll find you. If you’re looking for an excuse not to run, not to help, not to donate, not to get out of bed in the morning, you can always find one of those. The reasons we find for not taking action, for not listening to the voice in our head that steers us toward the light, are as ubiquitous as they are dangerous, and they are contagious as well. An excuse allowed to take hold on a Monday will soon enough have wrapped its tentacles around the entire week, and once you’ve given over an entire week to the path of least resistance, well, good luck getting back on the right road again. These are the thoughts that wake me up before my alarm. These are the ideas that keep me moving when I would rather stop. These are the truths that remind me why I cannot fail to speak up, cannot fail to run, cannot refuse to donate “just this one time”—because it’s never just one time. It is the start of a habit, and even in my fallen, battered state, I am intent upon turning those things that I value doing into habits. Despite all of my selfishness, my vices, I seek to do good things. One day at a time.
Monday was brisk yet still and the sun offered comfort through the thick layer of down that separated my body from the cold morning air. It was President’s Day, and Titus was waiting for me at home to build a Harry Potter Lego and watch The Order of the Phoenix, our tradition whenever we both have time away from school to make it happen. After the fairly intense fatigue that I had felt on Sunday walking around the zoo, I wasn’t sure what my muscles would be ready for but fewer than twenty-four hours later. Once on the trails, however, I found that my strength had returned and I only cut my run off at eight miles because I knew Titus was waiting patiently for me to start our day.
Tuesday morning I awoke around 4:40, well before my alarm. I got some additional lifting in with the extra time that fate had afforded me, then ripped off a 10K on the treadmill in dramatic negative splits, with the first half at an eight-minute pace, the second at a seven-thirty, and I ran the final half mile at a slight incline just to prove a point to myself. I feel strong. Formal training for the marathon starts in one week, and I’m ready. Sonja and I spent some of Tuesday night looking at cabins to rent near the race I’m running in Duluth in June, eventually deciding upon one with enough room that my parents could join us if they’d like and a small dock from which I hope to fly fish for northern pike and smallmouth bass. It’s exciting to make such plans.
Tuesday afternoon, a strong ache developed deep within the tissue of the muscle in the anterior of my right calf. It persisted into the evening, and after putting the kids to bed I took a hot shower to try to appease the pain. I rested in a recliner reading all evening and went to bed early. Wednesday morning, the ache remained, but I decided to take my chances. Six miles on the treadmill at around a nine-minute pace did nothing to further aggravate the muscle tissue, and I put on my comfiest pair of shoes as I dressed for the day. I used to run around twenty miles a week. To have twenty miles under my belt on a Wednesday, without even having snuck a long run in, feels fantastic, empowering even, never mind the quiet, nagging pains that accompany long distance running seemingly as a rule.
Wednesday night, Sonja told me that our neighbors next door had moved into a new apartment earlier than planned. I cringed—a missed opportunity. I had intended to visit them. I thought of it often. Yet there always seemed to be something more pressing to do, and they would always still be there tomorrow—right up until they weren’t.
In my humanities class, Afghanistan remains a topic of conversation, though we’ve transitioned our studies formally over to the genocide in Cambodia that took place between 1975-1979. My seniors still have two more weeks left in their unit on Afghanistan. In Senior English, I showed a short documentary on how to make Afghan kites. While students had work time, I dedicated my own time to writing a small grant proposal for enough bamboo, tape, paper, and twine for my classes to try their hands at making Afghan-style kites this spring, using the instructions from the video and the companion blog. I’m a fairly effective grant-writer. We’ll see.
Wednesday night I went to bed fuming about Governor Abbott of Texas and his unholy crusade against the human rights of the trans community and their families. Thursday morning, I awoke to the news that Russia had invaded the Ukraine. More anger. To live in such an unjust world, for the news at home and abroad to be so saturated with the bigoted pursuits of the hateful, for evil to have such power over our kind—it’s too much to bear at times, and yet I am not the one even who has to bear it. My anger fueled me for seven miles at an eight-minute clip on the treadmill. At school, I was unable to contain my emotions.
Colleague: Good morning!
Me: Good morning.
Colleague: How are you?
Me: Well, I live in one of the nations that wasn’t invaded by Russia last night, so pretty great I suppose.
My colleague just looked at me. I don’t mean to be insufferable, and yet the world suffers and I can’t turn my back, can’t change the channel, and so I see no alternative except to feel it. And it hurts.
I’m reminded of the summer of 2009. The Arab Spring had begun in Tunisia, and had rapidly spread throughout the longstanding dictatorships of that part of the world that is so Euro-centrically referred to as the “Middle East” (“east of what?!” I ask my students). In Iran, President Ahmadinejad had recently said that Israel should be “wiped off the map” and the presence of tens of thousands of Iranians in the streets of Tehran protesting their government was extremely encouraging. When a young woman protester was shot by a sniper and her death, recorded on a camera phone, was being broadcast on the nightly news, I was becoming convinced that the United States, despite all precedent, might be moved to take meaningful action. But then the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, suddenly died, and by the time the media got done with 24/7 coverage of his entire life, the streets of Tehran were quiet once again.
My strong suspicion, my great fear, is that Afghanistan is already fading from view. Soon, it will be another Cambodia, another Vietnam, another Iran in the rearview of our powerful nation. Aid will ebb, then cease entirely, the suffering of our fellow human beings so far from here going unnoticed, unaddressed, unencumbered. I can only hope that I am wrong.
As a teacher, I feel a moral obligation to keep my students in the know, and to teach about the world in which we live. This was the impetus for my introducing a unit on Afghanistan in five out of the six classes that I teach this semester. In every class Thursday, I began with a brief synopsis of what is happening in Texas, and what is happening in Ukraine. My students were alert, deeply interested in these things, and I took only enough time to plant seeds so that, if they wanted, my students could look into these things further. One student in my homeroom emailed me and wrote simply “Thank you for making sure we always know what’s going on.” In my first senior English class of the day, a young lady came forth with what I found to be a brilliant line: “You can still invade a country? What in the 1880’s is going on?” I chuckled, and assured her I’d be quoting her. The sentiment, of course, rings true; the Russians are not the only nation to invade another, and yet the connection between Afghanistan and Ukraine would be difficult to miss. The fact that Russia took the Crimean Peninsula less than ten years ago and today has invaded the rest of Ukraine also smacks of another, less civilized era. And yet, for the most part, I hear nothing that would amount to meaningful action coming from the leaders of the world. I hear only bluster, only noise.
One of my former graduate students, as well as a former colleague from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and, later, the Educators’ Institute for Human Rights—a non-profit I founded with my friend, Drew Beiter, many years ago—both worked in Ukraine at one point. I reached out to them both, looking for connections, perhaps schools where my students could connect with someone, offer whatever support we could muster. I began formulating a plan.
TJ’s text on Friday morning informing me at 4:45AM that he couldn’t make our planned ten miler as his infant child was awake and needed him admittedly came as something of a relief. I was up getting ready and had already checked the weather; I did not relish the prospect of running in two degrees with a significant breeze and a thin but present layer of freshly fallen snow promising to chill me still further with every step and stride. I made a double shot of espresso, briefly lifted weights, then ran a steady five miles at a pace of just under nine minutes a mile, my goal for Grandma’s Marathon in June.
At school, we took the day in Humanities to discuss the events in Ukraine. My students were interested, alert, and indicated that they wanted to pursue this study further. My former graduate students had gotten back to me overnight with some useful resources that I shared with our class. After a long discussion, we ended up breaking the class into three groups of near-equal size. One would focus on monitoring the news and developments, and briefing the rest of the class on a daily basis. Another one would focus on engaging policy makers, writing letters and emails to elected representatives in support of those in Ukraine. A third would work on raising money and awareness, looking for a good organization to which to donate whatever small sum we might raise, and working on announcements and other ways of ensuring that their classmates around the school could also be informed. We are not abandoning our study of Cambodia, but we are responding to the urgency of the situation in Ukraine.
My parents arrived in town Friday night, and stayed at the house next door all weekend. Saturday after breakfast, I ran eleven miles at a long slow pace, getting an up-close look at a hawk that had just captured a squirrel and ending the week with forty-three miles. I then returned to the house for lunch and pigged out on roast beef sandwiches with horseradish. The guest book at our rental lay open, and so I walked over and read the last entry. It began with “It was exactly January [sic] 31st evening that we arrived here. We are an Afghan family. We lived here for about 23 days, we had a very good & memorable time here.” Some of the rest of the note contained names that I won’t publish here. It ended with “Time passes only memories remain” below the signature.
This week I was forced to confront some of my habits, those which I think of as good as well as those that are regrettable. I habitually run almost every morning of my life, and this is good for many reasons. I also habitually put unfamiliar tasks off—such as visiting the family next door to welcome them to America—and this is bad and in this instance cost me the chance to meet people that I truly wish that I had gotten to know. I continue to seek to do good things, despite my vices and my fallen nature, despite my hectic schedule and the myriad distractions of my life, despite the ubiquitous discouragements of the world. I begin formal marathon training on Monday, and if I am to find success there then I suspect I’d better think long and hard about my habits. In addition, I’m coming to realize that I’ve allowed myself to settle, to become far too comfortable with the life of a middle-aged father of two in America’s heartland. For years now, I’ve believed firmly that we are food for worms, that in the end the only thing that matters about our brief yet brilliant lives is what we contribute to the world in the time in which we are here. What am I contributing? As time passes, I ask myself this question with increased frequency and equally mounting urgency. What am I doing to benefit my fellow human beings—in particular those who were not born into the very privileged and luxurious circumstances in which I find myself? I am forty years old and my life is at least half over, depending upon when and which of the various cancers and other ailments that plague my gene pool take hold. What am I doing to benefit my fellow human beings? What could I be doing? What habits must I strive to form in act two?