Week Twelve

“Your anger is a gift.”

~Zack de la Roca

Monday was the Afghan New Year, or the Persian New Year, based on the cycle of the seasons. I find it romantic that the start of spring should also be the start of the year. The Gregorian Calendar’s many flaws are perhaps best encapsulated in the idea that the only thing worth looking forward to on January 1 each year is symbolism. The weather is terrible and getting worse, at least where I live. Only soon-to-be-forgotten New Year’s resolutions and a fresh 365 distinguish January 1 from December 31, or any other time. Alternatively, Monday morning I went for a run in temperatures in the high fifties, and though the rest of the week threatens slightly less accommodating climes, there can be no denying that spring has indeed sprung.

I got to school Monday and began scrambling. I had a hundred bowls, a hundred plates, and a hundred sets of plastic cutlery to unload from my car. I still needed to track down the music I was going to play. I needed to make copies of the handout, telling students how to support the Afghan families we are helping to make a home for. I needed paper and markers for a banner, sign-in sheets, replacements for the napkins I’d forgotten at home. I fired off a quick email to my students reminding them about the Afghan New Year celebrations we’d planned, edited my handout one last time, made my copies, and got everything ready—all while teaching world religions, home room, and senior English. Teachers are the best multi-taskers on the planet. (We have no choice but to be.)

Last hour, I was waiting in the lecture hall when students began trailing in. I sent a few up to help get the food in that Shahen was delivering. In the background, a YouTube “video”, a still image of the Blue Mosque, with what I sincerely hope were traditional Afghan songs (endorsed by the UN) playing in the background.  When all the students had arrived, we spoke for a while about the New Year and why it mattered, about the Afghan community of Omaha, and then I shared my handout with them, with “Our New Neighbors” emblazoned across the top. On the handout were the dates I’d selected for us to set up the house for the two families that are moving in along with a long list of the items we would need in order to properly furnish it. Many students volunteered to help set up. I invited everyone to sign a banner reading “WELCOME HOME” that we’ll hang in the house when we’re all done. Possibly best of all, the students loved the food, as did I. When one young person told me “It tastes like home,” I did my best not to tear up.

As things wound down near the end of the day, I emailed the staff to let them know there was food available, and after school my colleagues flooded into the lecture hall. I put the leftovers in the staff lounge (as if anyone in my profession has time to “lounge” anymore) and emailed everyone to let them know it was there. In all, though I have next to no experience with it, celebrating the Afghan New Year felt like a success, and I’ve no doubt it will become an annual tradition. Maybe next year we’ll build kites. I’m still waiting to hear back about that grant…

Tuesday morning my hill workout was pretty tame. I set the treadmill at a 1.0 incline, at a 9:13 pace, and ran seven miles. Easy-peasy. At school, students already began bringing items in, and colleagues began emailing me telling me they, too, would contribute. Students in all of my classes continued to sign the banner. Pots, diapers, and bowls piled up atop and around my podium. I’ve done this sort of thing before, and the coordination is nerve-wracking. Failing to get all the necessary items just isn’t an option. That being said, with each new young person who signed up to help or dropped off yet another bag of supplies from the list, I felt increasingly confident in our ability to make the house a home, and my faith in this generation and in humanity itself was further bolstered.

~*~

The signature on Zach Schneider’s email reads “Marketing & Public Relations Director, Grandma’s Marathon” before listing his contact information. Zach reached out this week to ask me to share my story about why I’m running Grandma’s Marathon or, perhaps more accurately, why I’m running the Kandahar Marathon of which Grandma’s has become an increasingly important part.

Putting into words what I’m attempting to do wasn’t difficult, though I haven’t yet had the success in fundraising that I’m hoping for. Maybe promoting it this way would help. What I sent to Zach looked like this:

Please share more detail about the story you included on your registration – why do you want to run on Grandma’s Marathon weekend?

I originally signed up to run Grandma’s in 2020; it was to be my first full marathon since 2008 in Chicago, but of course it was cancelled during the pandemic. In the time since then, the United States has removed our forces from Afghanistan, the Afghan government has collapsed, and the Taliban have seized control. Omaha, where I live, is a refugee relocation community, and Nebraska will accept more Afghan refugees per capita than any other state save Oklahoma. I’m running to do my part.

In 2022, I’m running what I’m calling the “Kandahar Marathon” to help raise money to support Afghan refugees who are relocating to Nebraska in the wake of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. Under a regime like the Taliban, running as we do isn’t possible, so the “Kandahar Marathon” is a moniker intended to bring light to the fact that not everyone gets to do what we do, gets to run for health and pleasure. It’s also a way for me to raise financial support to help those Afghan refugees who are relocating to the United States.

For 2022, people are pledging me by the mile and I’m running as many miles as I possibly can, in order to raise as much money as I possibly can, for this cause. The money raised is being donated to the Refugee Empowerment Center, a registered non-profit, and the money is earmarked to support Afghan refugees. I’m also working with my students to furnish houses for families who are moving to the United States. You can learn more or pledge your support at markgudgel.com under the Kandahar Marathon tab.

What’s been the biggest benefit running has brought to your life?

To me, running is synonymous with good health. Running helps me to be healthy physically—my bones, muscles, heart and lungs, and it also helps me to be healthy mentally. I’m at my best in my own head when I’m in the act of running, or when I run daily and am training for something, such as grandma’s marathon. Running gives me purpose. I’ve struggled off and on with depression, and I find that it is most manageable when I begin each day with a good run.

If this will be your first time, what are you most looking forward to?

I was registered in 2020, but have never run Grandma’s. I ran my first marathon in 2005, my second in 2008, and after that chose to focus on the half. I’ve run about fifty half marathons in that time, and love pacing others. My lifetime PR in the marathon is a 4:27:45, and while I had youth on my side then, I’m far better trained now. What am I looking forward to? I’m looking forward to running my first full in fourteen years, and to shattering my previous PR in the marathon! I’m also looking forward to spending Father’s Day weekend with my family afterwards, and to maybe catching a few fish.

I didn’t want to say too little, but as you’ve surely deduced, dear reader, I’m far more inclined to say too much, and I didn’t want to do that either. I hoped that what I wrote was effective, and asked Mr. Schneider in my email to let me know if more details were needed.

~*~

I woke up and got a quick five miles in before school on Wednesday. I could hear the wind pounding outside and decided I didn’t want to fight with it, so instead I got on the treadmill and watched the rest of a documentary about Hispanic winemakers and migrant harvest workers in Napa and Sonoma as I trotted along. All day in school, students brough supplies to my room—bowls, diapers, pencils and paper, paper towels, toilet paper, cutlery, and more, and emails flooded in. So-and-so will bring a desk, a table, beds. I struggled to keep organized under the deluge of support, but in the end felt as if everything were coming together very well. For lunch Wednesday, I had some leftover kabuli pulau along with my usual cottage cheese and V8, and again left school feeling as if things were coming together nicely, if also slightly overwhelmed.

Thursday morning, after an eight-mile run at race pace, I got to school in time to set up the computer for a special guest speaker, the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor I had known who passed away a few years ago. Later, I got an email from the agency who had found housing for our family, informing me that because of plumbing issues in the house we couldn’t begin moving in that night. Telling the kids this took the wind out of my sales, but I made the most of it and assured them we’d tackle it head-on come Saturday. The piles of supplies heaped in the corners and back of my classroom would remain there another day.

TJ and I knocked out a ten-miler Friday morning. I felt good, moved well, and climbed hills easily. I’m getting stronger. The issues with my left foot persist, and Vaseline only helps a little bit these days. Now, on my right foot, my big toe nail has adopted a sickly green and purple hue around the edges, which is accompanied by a dull ache that grows increasingly pronounced when pressure is applied. I’ve never visited a foot doctor. I think perhaps I should.

Then, on Friday afternoon, everything imploded. Cindy, a volunteer who had previously met the two Afghan families we are supporting, emailed me with an urgent message. She had just stopped by the house we were going to move our family into to drop off cleaning supplies, and included in her email to me were a dozen images. I was appalled to learn that the house was in shambles. There were holes in the walls and holes in the floor large enough to fall into. There was standing water in the basement, a steady drip, and evidence of further plumbing issues. The carpets were repulsive—they were that sort of flat hotel carpet, at least forty years old, and so grimy that the added texture they had taken on from years of neglect and spillage was easily evident even in the grainy photographs. After school, I hurried over to inspect it for myself, and the realities were far worse than even what the photographs had conveyed to me. I thought about our family, having fled violence in Afghanistan, arriving to live in such a place. I thought of their one-year-old child crawling on that carpet. I thought of their sixteen-year-old child, possibly attending the school where I teach, where the students who would set up that “home” also attend, and then being forced to return home to squalor every afternoon following school. I was at once incensed and enraged.

I spent much of the evening on the phone with various people. There were those from the agency who were relocating the families, though not the ones who selected the house so I attempted to remain civil. I spoke also to friends at Habitat for Humanity, housing specialists from other non-profit organizations, and friends who hold elected office. The United States is about to open our doors to a hundred thousand Ukrainian refugees, and Omaha will be one of the many cities to which they are relocated. Frankly, we aren’t ready, and while I want to be sure we welcome them, I want to be sure we’re able to house them properly as well, and not force humans into conditions that are only better by the margin that they are not in immediate peril from the Russians or the Taliban.

The hardest part that afternoon was messaging my students, who had worked so hard to gather what we needed. First, they were put off for “plumbing issues” on Thursday, and now I had to tell them that we could not, or rather would not, do this on Saturday, because of the state of the house. It took me four messages to feel as if I’d explained things well enough, and by the time I was done I really needed a beer. I got the kids from daycare, spent more time on the phone with various entities, and then watched Guardians of the Galaxy II with my family while eating cheese and charcuterie—movie night being our family’s Friday night tradition. After, I read a chapter of Danny the Champion of the World to Zooey before retiring back to the basement to half-watch the UNC v. UCLA game in the Sweet Sixteen. I got accepted to UCLA for my undergrad, though my parents strongly discouraged me from going and eventually they won out. I became a UNC “fan” when one of my favorite English teachers hung a “Blue Heaven” poster on his classroom wall—it might have been the first time I realized that teachers are human beings with interests rather than one-dimensional automatons who go home at night to pet their cats and grade papers before and early bedtime, a realization that may have helped guide me into the profession. UNC won. I had them winning in my bracket, but was otherwise indifferent to the outcome. I was too distracted, too upset, to invest in anything very seriously. My right foot was swelling or I might have gone for a late-night run. Saturday was supposed to be a sabbath this week, but I harbored doubts about whether or not I’d be able to shun the best form of therapy available to me. I fell asleep on the couch in the basement, but did not sleep well or long.

Saturday morning Sonja and I spoke about the house. Relatably, predictably for me who knows her perhaps better than anyone, the photographs of it kept her up at night, she said. Like me, she couldn’t imagine moving a family into such a run-down place, the suggestion it makes to them, the message it sends. At the age of nearly forty-one I am clinging to any idealism I still can grasp. The Afghans who are moving to Omaha deserve better than decrepit, ramshackle accommodations. They are our fellow human beings, after all. 

I managed to rest on Saturday, despite my desire to go for a run, though it may be more accurate to say that I was forced to rest. Taking stock of my feet, I think I may be somewhat naïve to think that the litany of issues manifesting themselves in the Patagonian region of my body are going to go away on their own. The issues between my pinky toe and the others on my left foot, which I have blamed on my own mild case of a hereditary disease, persist. The skin as the base will rot, then become painfully inflamed and itch like mad. I have been rubbing Vaseline on it but the threat of infection is ever-present and it bleeds off and on. Also on my left foot, between my third and fourth metatarsals on the bottom between the bones and the calloused pad, a dull ache has emerged, reminiscent of a time I dunked a basketball barefoot and landed on the concrete court in agony. As for my right foot, the big toenail grows increasingly green and purple on the anterior side, and I give it at best a fifty percent chance of remaining a part of my body much longer. On the opposite side of the same foot, the thick skin to the outside of my pinky toe is now home to a sharp pain. I’d suggest a splinter, but the callouses are so thick that I can’t imagine wood getting through them, which leaves glass or metal, neither of which is visible to me at the wonky angles from which I’m able to view that part of my foot.

My hope is that these issues may begin to go away. Neglecting running injuries is like dumping gasoline on a fire, but taking time off is akin to leaving a metal device in the rain to rust. Neither ever seems like a very good option in the moment, and experience tells me I won’t have to wait long to find out.

Sunday morning was cold, and I woke up rested yet restless, angry at the situation, angry at the world. I spent time talking to a student last night who was going to help set the house up for the family. She was so worried about what would happen to them, would they wind up on the streets. I assured her they would not, told her I’d offered to raise money to pay for their Air BnB to be extended, but we shared the worry that things would not be as we hoped for them, would not be as they deserve. It was with those thoughts in mind that I struck out on my run. It was brisk, in the twenties, yet it was still and I had no goals in mind, just to exercise, to decompress, to get a therapy session in and hopefully do no further damage to my feet while I was at it.

Anger is a strange thing. It can be entirely corrosive, destructive, and evil. I have also found, however, that righteous anger is the best fuel that I can burn. I often counsel my students that the Philosopher de la Rocha teaches us that our anger is a gift, and if we can channel it into energy—rather than allowing it to consume us—then we can use it as fuel. My anger at the situation today, at the proposed treatment of these two families now somewhat in my charge, at the indifference shown to where they might live and how, to their wellbeing and their dignity, burned hot inside me. Enraged, I pounded the pavement, lightly and slowly at first, hard and fast later on as I burnt up miles one after the next. I lapped the park twice, then went through my fourteen-mile route, then lapped the park again. All told, I ran twenty miles in around three hours, and only stopped because I knew my family was waiting for me at home. It was, in some ways, refreshing to feel such indignation-bordering-on-fury once again. I only need to be sure that I use that fuel not only to power through a long run, but also to continue to advocate on behalf of those in need. The Kandahar Marathon continues.

~Mark

Please, if you are able, support my efforts to raise money to help resettle Afghan refugees in Nebraska. You can access this link to my FanAngel page to pledge either to support my running or to join me in running the Kandahar Marathon yourself. I’d be honored to have you by my side. Thank you!

Link: https://www.fanangel.com/campaigns/2315/story

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