I have run the past two days, totaling more mileage (just shy of 5 miles) than I have accrued since the day after plica surgery on April 2 (I ran 5K the morning of the surgery - perhaps the antecedent to the complications?). This piece was just written for an intensive teacher-class I just took - 9+ hours in the classroom each weekday, tons of reading, and, gasp, homework. Reckoned I'd throw it up here for a more permanent record, and as a reflection of things beyond running.
“I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. . . . As he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness."
- Henry David Thoreau, Walden
I was six or seven. It was summer. A clear day, blue sky, the woody smell of Vermont’s Green Mountains deepened by the heat. I was sitting on the third step leading up to the porch where we stacked our wood for the winter and had the swinging bench for summer days and nights. The stairs faced the giant tree, the one I was always too nervous to climb. The one with the “pull bark” that I would pick and flick like little knives. I was crying. The tears came from a realization. A realization that one day, any day, I could die. For some reason, unknown to me, on this day I confronted the only promise of human life, the promise that we will all end. It was not an anxious moment, a depressed moment, it was just a great epiphany. Still, it scared the shit out of me.
. . .
There was a growing sense of foreboding. We’ve all had it - that twisting pit of anxiety that builds in the bottom of your stomach and gradually builds to consume your mind, training your thoughts on all the negative possibilities. The freezing cold water, engulfing me to my naval, did little to inspire confidence. The cold caused my breath to grow shallow. Despite being surrounded by all this fresh water, my mouth began to go dry. This was going to end badly. Very badly. Why was I doing this to Liz?
“Dad, we’re swimming across,” Cooper proclaimed, the general soft, “kid” quality of his six-year-old voice masking a brash confidence I had lacked in youth, and adulthood. My four-year-old, Jacoby, mirrored this confidence, but had the sense to say he’d be swimming on my back. Between us and the far edge of Walden Pond lay a stretch of water that, despite being crystal clear looked like a black-hole, it’s impressive depth swallowing all the light before it could return to the surface. Every instinct I had as a parent cringed at the thought of letting my two sons, whom I love deeper than my own life, risk theirs to swim across this water. There was no reason to do it, other than to fulfill a natural sense of wonder and exploration, the same drive that propelled the earliest humans to step into the unknown and explore the world. I thought of Liz, who, during the summer months works longer hours while I watch the boys. How could I tell her what was sure to happen to one, or both, of our children? Heart racing, every muscle tensed, every ounce of parental instinct screaming, “NO!” we pushed off and began the swim. This was going to end badly. Very badly.
. . .
Years before, my Grandpa Barney struggled to enjoy the last bit of his failing strength and vigor. He and I strolled the beach outside his Florida home, an activity once done for hours without rest. Today, we stopped at every beach chair we could find, Grandpa clearly struggling to walk the fifty yards between each. Despite his troubles, we shared the deepest conversation we had ever had. The details are fuzzy, bleated out by the bright sun and my realization that this would be the last time I could share a walk with him. But looking at the man who, through his work and economic acumen had brought financial fortune to my family, I confessed the fear that I would never make much money. My grandfather, who had started humbly, peddling fruit in Brooklyn to feed his family, then laid bricks, and eventually became a successful builder during the heyday of Detroit, told me, “Josh, there are many forms of success.” We sat silently for a moment. “Money is only one measure. It’s probably the least important.” The conversation ended as we reached the next beach chair, Grandpa winded, eyes closed as he struggled to catch his breath, those “other” forms of success left a mystery to my freshly minted, college-graduate mind. A mystery that remains to be discovered through living.
Years later, I walked this same stretch of beach. It was late at night, mid-February, the temperature a welcome, but unnoticed relief from the wicked cold I had left in Boston a mere twelve hours before. My mind remained in my grandparent’s home, where, just minutes before, I had held Grandpa Barney’s head, gently running my hand through his beautifully silver hair, hearing the “death rattle” in his throat, speaking to a spirit I hoped remained in the wasted, unconscious body. As he lay dying we shared a moment of physical intimacy we had never shared before. I said goodbye and, alone, left the light of the building, left the pain of my parents and grandmother, who would keep vigil that night, to walk to the hotel where my wife and two boys were waiting, asleep. With not another soul in sight along the entire ten-mile beach, I stopped. At first I heard the waves, their melodic rhythm unending, infinite. I pitied my loss, my grandfather’s pain. I turned to the heavens, to the great expanse of sky above the water and was awed by the sheer scope of the universe, the stars, eternal beacons to worlds beyond our reach, and to the great human sense of exploration. Looking at that night sky, I realized I was looking at the same stars, which were forming the same patterns, which had been looked to in moments of joy and sorrow and contemplation for thousands of years. As my grandfather’s last bit of life was leaving his body, I thought of how every moment, in all of creation, had led to this one. In this moment, wrapped in the personal suffering of loss, I thought of all the people who were, at that moment, comforting their loved ones in death, or were welcoming their child to the world, or were meeting the love of their life for the first time. I thought of all the people who, despite the infinite vastness and opportunity that spread above me, were thinking of my grandfather. From his earliest days, pushing his wooden fruit cart on the streets of Brooklyn, to his days as a grandfather and a great-grandfather, and all his days in between, his eternal stars were his relationships with others. His honesty. His integrity. His love.
There are many forms of success.
. . .
It had been a long three months for me. Just weeks from the 100-Mile Trail Running National Championships, where I was confident in a top finish, my knee flared up. I knew exactly what the pain was, having suffered from this three times before, and did all I could to rehab. My fitness, both the physical and the mental, that is needed to run 100 miles was at an all-time high, having been built over the previous year through long miles and wake-ups that match last call at many bars, and an almost maniacal focus. As the weeks progressed and the recovery did not, this was lost. I dropped from the championships, mourning the lose of a reality I had pictured, but that had never existed. Fourteen weeks from the initial flare of injury, after nearly two months of consideration and counsel, I stood on the eve of a “simple” surgery, which promised to fix my knee, fix the problem, forever. In about fifteen hours a surgeon would put his tools into my knee, but first there was this ridiculous coaches meeting I had to attend.
It was Tuesday, April 1, 2014. I had missed bedtime with the boys to sit among close to two hundred coaches for the Town of Arlington, mostly dads, many of whom joked around and caught up, my natural introvert squirming as I sat awkwardly at a middle-school cafeteria table, just waiting for the meeting to end. In lieu of my usually intense, and time-consuming training, I had signed up to coach my son’s U-8 soccer team, this meeting marking the start of the spring season and my formal commitment to three days a week of practice and games. I was dismayed when Mike Singleton, the director of the Massachusetts Youth Soccer, was introduced as the guest speaker. Honestly? A guest speaker? I was coaching a group of seven and eight year olds! I just wanted my gear so I could go – I had a surgery the next day. Being polite, I feigned interest as Mike spoke about youth soccer and his many experiences coaching – from the awkwardly large ten year old who was six inches taller than him to the college level player who got hurt and lost his scholarship. My mind half present, a word floated through the air that caught my attention: pedagogy. This was starting to feel like a really bad PD.
Yet, as Mr. Singleton spoke of pedagogy, comparing soccer to education, to school and planning, he addressed something that had been stewing in my mind for years, something I had been unable to articulate and something not enough people in education are willing to look at. Now, with my rapt attention he continued, “Of the hundreds, possibly thousands of kids who play soccer here in town,” his demeanor intense with its honesty and passion, “Only a few, maybe ten, will go on to play Division I soccer. Maybe one will go on to play professionally,” he iterated, placing a clear emphasis on the maybe. “But this, I promise you,” his voice now almost a whisper, “These kids will become adults. Many of them will become parents. What we need to teach them is not how to be the best soccer player, but how to be the best people they can be.” Coaching, suddenly, was not just a “filler” for my lack of running. It was a sacred act.
There are many forms of success.
- - -
Thirty yards from the far shore, Cooper started to tire. I started to panic. I offered words of encouragement, focusing to keep my tone calm and collected. This was the moment I had gravely feared. My mind’s eye showed my son sinking below me, me struggling to save him. I became acutely aware of every little movement Jacoby made on my back, sure that he, too, would fall and sink like a rock. Cooper grabbed my arm and clung on, his little legs losing their strength below the surface. I pushed toward shore, my heart pounding from fear, carrying both boys, desperate to get out of this situation, until he said, “NO! I just need a little break.” Jacoby added, “This is fun.” The fear and grim fate I imagined did not exist for them. We tread water for the longest thirty seconds of my life, and then, my two boys finished their swim across Walden Pond.
As a child, I never had the chutzpah to do something like this, to confidently advance in the direction of my dreams. My successes were visible in athletic trophies and rankings, academic grades, gainful employment. But always was that sense of, “Can I really do this?” sounding in the deepest recesses of my subconscious. Perhaps it was that day on the steps, when I understood my mortality, but I was never willing to push myself to the absolute edge of potential. It wasn’t until my senior year of college that I rode a roller coaster, until my 34th year of life that I went cliff jumping. Even today, as a teacher and athlete, I continually question if I’m “doing it right” or “doing enough.”
When my sons, who, by any reasonable account were much too young for the risks and, all too real, consequences this swim across Walden Pond entailed, first told me they were going to do it, I balked. Yet, perhaps for the spirit of Thoreau that pervades this place, we swam. By embracing their goals and dismissing my fears, their challenges, their dreams were made my own. They accomplished something that, for them, was truly epic. Reaching the far side my heart swelled with pride. Not at their accomplishment, but at the sheer audacity of action and willingness to push the limits of what they, and I, deemed possible. It was this summer day, a clear day, blue sky, the woody smell of Walden Pond deepened by the heat, that my sons gained a true education. It’s an education that in most ways can only be known to ourselves, an education that, when gained, produces an inner strength of character that allows one to advance toward dreams with a confidence “unexpected in common hours.” I wish for them to continue seeking, and I strive (and struggle) to replicate this education, this success, inside the confines of my classroom. Years after that lonely night walking down the beach in Florida, as Cooper and Jacoby lay panting on the far shore of Walden Pond, veritably glowing with pride and accomplishment, I felt what Grandpa Barney’s words meant.
There are many forms of success. Grandpa Barney realized that the ones that really matter are the ones that people may never know you’ve achieved.
The life which men praise and regard as successful is but one kind. Why should we exaggerate any one kind at the expense of the others?
- Henry David Thoreau, Walden