In the Memory of Life

Crown of Hope

Sometimes, hope fades as the fleeting rays of twilight. Sometimes, the world strikes you with shattering rage. Sometimes, you wish you could simply fade away into the sands of time. In those times, you find out what really matters.

Everything had been going to plan. I had a job I enjoyed, a community I valued, and a wife I loved. Life was good.

Wise men have said that the only thing constant in life is change. So it was for me. With the breaking of the recession, my project was canceled. I kept my job, but the work wasn’t so interesting.

Much of it involved pressing buttons and entering data into a computer program. The moments of thought and challenge were offset by hours of tedious labor. Work gives so much meaning and self worth, and to have that taken away was a blow.

I was stuck. So I did what everyone tells you to do when you get stuck: go for an MBA. Perhaps it was a means of avoiding taking action. Maybe I was putting off taking responsibility. Those things could have been part of it, but I did not see any other options. I was blind to them. To me, an MBA was the final attempt at reviving my stalled career.

In the span of a few months, I wrote the essays, studied for and took the GMAT, and filed my application to Kellogg School of Management. I was confident my odds for acceptance were good.

Meanwhile, I stayed stuck at work. I was transferred to another project in the company, and due to the way the work was set up, we spent a lot of time idle. But if I just got accepted into the MBA program, I’d have the grounds to request a move to something more interesting.

It is fitting that the day I heard back from Kellogg was October 31. I don’t usually take the Hallows’ Eve darkness seriously, but it was real then. The rejection struck with the force of a freight train. I was a man who had rolled his last dice with everything all in. That roll had come up empty.

You may look at me and say that my hopelessness was irrational. It was. For all the skills and talents at my disposal, it makes no sense for me to despair. But then, people are not rational. I am no exception. All the options that I saw before me had closed.

Amidst the pain, I questioned my very life. Countless times, I would have welcomed death with open arms. Surely it would be easier than living. But I lacked to the courage to bring that death myself. I was too afraid. Or so I thought at the time.

As I look back, I no longer see my hesitation as a matter of weakness. Rather, it came from deep within – a questioning. Memories of something else waged war on my desperation.

I remembered the time I slept in a cave with none but the closest of friends. We had hiked through the afternoon and set up camp at Woodcutter’s Cave – an enclave in the rock above flowing waterfalls. We shared a feast and told stories late into the night. The sound of the falling water set the rhythm as bonds of friendship deepened. The star-filled sky shone with the light of love.

I remembered visiting widows on Sunday afternoons. And though by many standards these men and women had nothing, they were rich beyond belief. They welcomed us with open arms and bestowed on us the honor of their stories. Amidst the injustice of their situation, there was humanity.

I remembered the brothers of my community. Kirk and Darin came to where I was. To my home they visited and offered prayers of comfort. Although my heart refused to believe them, they blessed me.

I remembered the love of a woman. In my hours of stillness and despair, she stood by me. And when I was alone amidst the gloom, she held me. She spoke the words of hope that I was unable to speak for myself.

I remembered life.

It tugged at me. It demanded I be certain of my choice. Death is final. There would never be another chance.

And slowly, life began to win.

Nothing in that transition was swift, but it came nonetheless. As the water breaks through a dam, first at a trickle, then at a stream, then bursting forth, such was the return of hope. And I live.

***

No one wishes hardship upon themselves, but I am grateful for that time. It taught me lessons I could never have learned any other way. Those lessons will stay with me forever.

From my pain and hopelessness, I understood the pain and hopelessness of others. While the situation may be different, I know what it’s like to walk under the shadow. I have witnessed the despair it brings. It compels me to reach out and help those that I can.

In the whirlwind of circumstance, I understood that the power was still mine. I cannot choose what happens, but I can choose to happen. How I respond is up to me.

Out of questioning my very desire to live, I understood the value of life. What a gift we have been given. What a tremendous opportunity we have. Life is priceless. It’s worth fighting for.

But most of all, I understood that life is more than just breathing. Life is about being active. Life is about making a difference. Life is about love. Life is about joy. Life is about other people. Life is about shaking the earth with everything you’ve got.

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Crown of Hope. I made this photo near Lokichogio, Kenya.

A Journey of Friendship

Go on up to the mountain.

Pounding. Foot strikes earth – again, and again. Red dust stirs from its slumber with each impact. Wind rushes by – howling through the deep cuts in the rock. Step by step, railroad ties fade behind me. Countless more are still ahead as I continue my decent into the Great Rift Valley. Mt Longonot looms in the distance.

Amidst the energy, my breathing rhymes with the pounding of my footfalls. Determined, I run. Focused, I move forward.

In my company are friends. Together we set out to run the twenty kilometers down to Mt. Longonot, a dormant volcano in the Great Rift Valley. I had trained with them for several months before, running together along dusty roads and forest paths. Today shall reveal our preparation.

Don’t let the notion that most of the run is downhill deceive you, it is hard. It’s twice the distance I have ever done before. And all that is gained by the downhill is lost as the grade slopes upward toward the mountain for the final four kilometers. The support of my companions is most welcome.

Sometimes we distract each other. With a joke or story, the monotony of the unending railway is broken. For a moment, laughter brings amnesia to the burning of our legs.

When we feel like stopping, when our bodies beg surrender, we hold one another up.
“You can do it.”
“Push on, friend.”
“You’re more than half-way.”
“Hey look, there’s a lion behind you.”

The final four kilometers begins. My last strength kicks in, and I fly. Or at least, that’s what it feels like. The reality is that my pace is probably closer to that of the race’s beginning.

The end comes into view.

One hundred meters…
Fifty meters…
Ten meters…

Rarely does the destination feel so sweet. I have defeated myself. The smile that eluded me for much of the prior two hours sneaks to my face.

But as much as I rejoice in reaching the end, that’s not the memory that sticks. I remember the look of those who came after me as they crossed that line. It is in them that I take my happiness. My accomplishment gives me pride, but doing it in and with the company of friends gives me joy.

***

A host of stars canvas the sky – each a tiny soldier against the blackness. Dodging between scattered clouds, the moon dares cast its reflected glory upon us. Yet again the railway ties fade into the distant past. The pace is slow, relaxed, and steady. Mt Longonot looms in the distance.

Somebody in our dorm had the bright idea of hiking throughout the night and climbing the mountain at morning’s first rays. Not really thinking about it, we all agreed. It turned out to be brilliant.

We walk the star-lit railway – a steady march to the mountain ahead. The stillness breaks only once to the roar of a passing freight train.

The journey is not without incident.

There is laughter and surprise. With eyes adjusted to starlight, a certain joker in our number ambushes us with the flash of a camera. Our dazed faces are to remain frozen in film forever.

There is a chai and coffee break. Over a haphazard fire, someone brews, or attempts to brew, warm beverages to stave off the chilly air. I am saved from the bitterness of that so-called chai by the best orange I have ever tasted. Adversity has a way of making things sweeter.

There is the race up the mountain. Having been made to wait till 6:00 AM to enter the Mt. Longonot National Reserve – apparently the buffalo go away at that time – we take off at full speed. Shoes slip on the loose gravel. Tired legs unleash their last reserves. We race the rising sun.

Victory. As brothers, we stand shoulder to shoulder as the sun’s first rays pierce the clouds. Newly sworn members of the “Sunrise Club”, we bask in the beauty.

As with the run, the destination is sweet. We accomplished what we set out to do. But the journey was even sweeter. Its memory will live for many years to come.

Still, that is not the whole story. It is fellowship of brothers that made it all worthwhile. Doing such a trip alone would have been cause for misery. In the midst of the beauty, in the heart of the fun, in the joy of the achievement, is friendship. That is the reason for everything.

You will always travel. Some journeys will be difficult, and some shall be easy. Some will have a clear ending, and others will seem to last for a lifetime. Some will bring victory, and some will bear defeat. But as you wander, I hope you will remember at least one thing:

It is not about the destination, nor is it even about the journey. It’s about the friends you take with you.

***

Then again, sometimes the journey is not necessary. Sometimes, you just sit in the silence of friendship and watch the mountain from afar. You smile as it erupts in the sunset’s fire.

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Go on up to the mountain. I made this photo of Mt. Longonot from Rift Valley Academy in Kijabe, Kenya.