Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Harbor Runs Through It (Baltimore, MD)



Top: Colleen, Crystal, Kristin, Melissa, Brian, Mike & me on Tuesday night
Middle: Jim, Lydia, me, Crystal & Salimah on Monday night
Bottom: Diana, Valerie, me, Bober, Eric & James on Sunday night

In Robert Redford's movie A River Runs Through It a young Brad Pitt plays the rebellious younger son of a small town Presbyterian minister. Stop right there. I know what you are thinking. Yes, I am the younger son of a small town Presbyterian minister, but that is where the parallels end. I wasn't that rebellious and let's be frank, if I ever looked like a young Brad Pitt I could have stayed in LA, grown out my facial hair and made millions in movies while walking around town in strange looking hats. Wait a second, I do walk around in a strange looking hat.

My hat and I spent the last two days and three nights in Baltimore. The landscape here is not dominated by a river, but by a harbor. Yet I couldn't help but be reminded about the themes of A River Runs Through It as I stayed with three twentysomethings in Baltimore.

The tension which drives the plot is the relationship between the preacher and his two sons. One is studious, the other rebellious but both are trying to become their own man and escape from the imposing shadow of their father. And really, what story is more archetypal than that?

How we mature into our adulthood and juggle the pressures of both societal and family expectations is an experience everyone can relate to. We must decide what lessons and beliefs from our upbringings we want to take with us in our adult journey through life and what we want to leave behind. I stole that last line from something I wrote when I was a twentysomething - 26 to be exact. In 1999 I sat on my roof in Los Angeles and wrote my parents an 11-page (single spaced mind you) letter about what I believed. It wasn't Tolstoy or Faulkner, but it was honest.

I ended the letter with a quote I had heard in a song by Sweet Honey In The Rock. I later learned the song was sourced from the poetry of Khalil Gibran's. Here it is, in part:

Your children are not your children
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls
for their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
for life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

The relationship between parents and their adult children can be dramatic or it can be approached in a spirit of acceptance. I'm lucky to have two parents who took the latter approach - the "road less traveled" in my experience. I'm not sure how much they strive to be like me, but they did a great job of not trying to force me to be like them. They gave me space to decide for myself what parts of their character and their lived examples I would like to pack in my suitcase. Let me tell you, it was quite a bit. But there was room in there for my own beliefs and my own experiences. The aggregate is a soul that hopefully "dwells in the house of tomorrow". Don't worry Mom, that house still has central air.

This weekend in Baltimore I was given a place to stay by three people younger than me, running my streak to four straight nights. In the midst of their busy lives Eric Owens, Crystal Harvey and Colleen Smith all made time to give me a place to stay, get to know me, and introduce me to some of the people that form their respective communities of friends and family. I enjoyed making friends with each of them, and I learned some rather random things along the way. Number one, I'm horrible at fuse ball (Thanks to James for imparting that lesson). Number two, Baltimore Public Libraries rock. Third, "Real" and "Chance" from VH1's Real Chance of Love are two of the most insipid characters in the already vapid landscape of reality TV personalities. And last, but certainly not least, I learned it is possible to put a whole bottle of caramel syrup in an apple pie and still have it taste good. Who knows, any of those lessons might come in handy down the road.

On a more serious note, a conversation I had with Eric also stood out. I brought up the mutual friend we share who went to high school with him. I won't use her name because she has a wonderfully humble, joyful spirit and I don't want to embarrass her. But suffice it to say that Eric told me about how in his high school years he was quite vocal in his anti-religious beliefs. She was someone who was visible and active in Christian leadership in their school. Yet this difference of belief never cast any kind of shadow on how she related to him. She was always super friendly, always found non-contentious things to talk about and never pushed her beliefs on him. She was content to simply be his friend, live out her own truth and let him do the same.

I hope I can take a page from that play book as I relate to friends and family and maybe - someday - with children of my own. Actions are so much more persuasive than words. When I reach a point in my life where I am open to change it isn't someone preaching to me that has tilled the soil to make it fertile. It is the example of someone who has been put in my life - their love, their ability to forgive, the sense of peace that surrounds them - acted out over time that makes me curious as to its source.

You know, there is a perfect example of this from Season Five of The Wire ... but I'll spare you the comparison. Instead I will say thank you to all the parents who love their children in a way that honors their own choices. And a special thank you to Eric, Crystal and Colleen. If you are ever in NYC, mi casa es su casa, just as you opened yours to me.

I Can't Believe I'm That Guy


Here I am sitting outside of Baltimore's City Hall doing a really bad job of looking like Jimmy McNulty. My ridiculous faux-pathos aside, I knew at that moment I was in the spiritual company of legends. I'm not talking about the real politicians who served here. I'm talking about the fictional characters whose stories revolved around this center of power for five seasons on the HBO's The Wire.

Yes, I'm that guy. My name is Garth and I'm powerless over the temptation of talking about The Wire whenever humanly possible.

I've always tried to avoid being that guy. You know the type. The person who is so obsessed with one topic that he or she weaves it into every conversation. We all know a few. They can be ... how shall I say it ... insufferable at times. That guy who incessantly talks about his boss. That guy who brings every conversation around to why some random hobby like scuba diving is so freakin' awesome, "and you know what, you should definitely try it." That guy who is forever telling college stories, well into his 50s.

There are many variations. I just never thought I would be one. Then I watched The Wire. All opinions about art are by their nature subjective, but as far as I'm concerned there has never been a TV series as insightful, realistic and entertaining as the Wire. Period.

So here I sit outside Baltimore City Hall, the fictional home of Mayors Royce and Carcetti and the epicenter of a city whose alter ego was played out for five seasons through the lives of McNulty, the Bunk, Omar, Avon, Stringer, Bubbles and countless others. I'm like a nerdy school boy. The show's fifth and final season has long since passed and yet I still am in awe of the story telling that creator David Simon was able to pull off in this series.

Here is the "Forest through the Trees" lesson of what The Wire said to me: As individuals we have the power to make choices that can radically alter our own lives, either positively or negatively. We hold within ourselves the the seeds of creation or destruction of our destinies. But on an instituational level the ability of an individual to affect change is virtually zero. The instituations that serve us, (or purport to) such as governments, the media, the school system - even blackmarket systems like the drug trade - are macro reflections of the group consciousness of a society at a given time and place. Therefore only a large sea change in consciousness can alter them in any signficant way. Lone crusaders - the McNultys, the Stringers, the Major Culvins - don't have a chance.

Popular history often likes to glorify crusaders and give them credit for changing entrenched systems. Yet close inspection will show you that Martin Luther King Jr. did not end segregation by himself. Susan B. Anthony did not hand women the ballot of her own accord. Ghandi did not chase the British from India acting alone. These men and women were important, but they were only the most visible leaders and symbols of the long and tedious work of thousands and thousands of people over many frustrating years until events conspired with their cause to affect a sea change in the consciousness of a society. Once the group consciousness tipped in the favor of their ideas, institutions gradually changed with it.

I was reminded of this just a few short minutes after I did my James Cagney pose in front of City Hall. I was walking to the East Habour and passed a museum advirtising an exhibit on the Montgomery Bus Boycott. It took a near total strike by the city's black ridership for 381 days in 1955-56 to reach a settlement that changed the minutae of rules on where they could sit on the city buses. Yet segregation in all other areas of Montgomery remained unchanged. It would take many more years (and a few lives) before institutions in states like Alabama truly changed to end legalized discrimination in all facets of society.

To me, The Wire is a great artisitc reality check of my generation. It is a cautionary tale of the power of insitutions to be resistant to change, however ineffectual they have become.

The hope for me comes from knowing that when enough indivduals evolve to see an issue diffently, the institutions which supported those outdated assumptions do finally crumble, and something else is created in its place. It just takes a while. So activists, know that you are in for a long haul. And since you have time, be very, very careful to live a life of reflection and constantly ask yourself "Is their anything about how I act in my own life that doesn't reflect the same change I am demanding of an institution." Because within a modern day democracy our insitutions are just a collective reflection of the priorities, prejudices and principles of you, me and all our neighbors on a grand scale. Our lived example is as big a part of what we are seeing back in that "institutional" mirror as the person our words are aimed at coercing.

Wow. This post took a turn for the serious rather quickly. As the SNL character Gilly would say ... "sorry!". I started out writing about the Wire and ended up with what appears to be an exegesis of Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror". I've kept you hostage long enough. Now pardon me while I try and figure out how to strike up a conversation with this guy sitting next to me about The Wire. Who knows, maybe he was an extra in one of the episodes.

Sincerely Yours,
That Guy

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Whistling Dixie in German and Polish



Top: Tom, Amy, Kimi, Travis and me in Aberdeen, MD on Friday
Middle: Udo, Jehad, Janice and me in Elkton, MD on Thursday
Bottom: Udo and Jehad in the conductor chairs on Thursday

My triumphant march across the Mason-Dixon line into the South was a little atypical. First, I wasn't traveling south when I crossed it. Along most of the Maryland/Delaware border the Mason-Dixon line divides east from west. Second, the first people I met were a German man and his wife, a native Pennsylvanian. As I walked deeper into Maryland the next day, my hosts were a Polish man and his wife, also a native Pennsylvanian. If I meet a woman from Europe in the next day and get married to her, this is going to get spooky.

I get good comic mileage out of the whole Mason-Dixon line, but it really is a relic of history. According to Wikipedia the first official use of the term was in the 1820 Missouri Compromise and the term went on to connote the cultural border between North and South. Ask most kids these days, however, and they would probably tell you Maryland is a northern state.

Apparently the South is now home to more trans-Atlantic couples than men named after Stonewall Jackson or Nathan Bedford Forest. As a Yankee, that suited me just fine. On Thursday I had the chance to get to know the first of those trans-Atlantic couples, Udo and Janice Sommerhoff. Udo and Janice first met as volunteers at a L'Arche community in Ireland. L'Arche commnities were founded by Jean Vanier and provide homes for adults with developmental and physical disabilities. Udo later moved to the US and the two got married.

They are currently taking care of a four year old foster child named Jehad. As with most four year olds, Jehad's energy was abundant. He has a radiant spirit that wants to be in constant motion. It was beautiful to see how Udo and Janice did their best to try and support his energy and yet bring him peace when that energy would quickly veer toward discontent. They truly do live out the passage from Psalms that they have displayed in their house: "Turn from evil and do good. Seek peace and pursue it".

Speaking of scriptural references, I am going to give my award for favorite bumper sticker so far to the one on the back of Udo's truck. It says, "When Jesus said love your enemies, I'm pretty sure he meant don't kill them." I have nothing to add to that. It's just perfect.

Udo and Janice set me up in their furnished basement, giving me amazing solitude for what became a monumental night of sleep. I fell asleep even before Jehad, but not before he had a chance to serenade me with a wonderful rendition of Happy Birthday. That boy's got some pipes. I said my good nights and then the world didn't hear from me for another ten and a half hours. My body must have needed the rest because the next day it was like a whole new world dawned. I felt more awake and alive than I've been since I left West Hebron. With that vigor, I marched on through Queen Mary's land to Aberdeen.

A roadblock stood in my way in the form of Thomas Hatem Memorial Bridge. It crosses the Susquehanna River between Perryville and Havre de Grace but is not accessible to pedestrians. If I wanted to walk every step of my journey, come hell or high water, I could have waited until the cover of darkness and then run across, thumbing my nose at "the man." Instead I walked into Perryville, had a wonderful chicken breast sandwich at a local bistro, sauntered over to the local train station and rode the rails across the river. I chose to give the "man" more of a "howdy do" than an "F you". He can have his non-pedestrian friendly bridge. The only point I was trying to prove was that I could get to South Aberdeen by sun down.

Tom and Amy Hribar earn a couple entries in the Poorman Walking Book of Firsts. Number one, they are the first hosts I have stayed with outside of NYC who are both younger than me. Second, they are the first hosts I have been connected with by complete serendipity. Kimi Will is the daughter of "The Ging" and "Big Pete" who I stayed with on the second night of my journey in Schaghticoke, NY. Kimi happened to be home that night and she later noticed I was looking for a place to stay in Aberdeen.

She put me in touch with Amy and Tom who, like her, are civil engineers. Tom is originally from Poland and Amy is from the Pittsburgh area and their two dogs are from a planet called "Always Hungry". They invited Kimi and her fiance Travis over and together the five of us feasted on steak, potatoes, pasta salad, fresh tomatoes & mozzarella and all the while their older dog, a Golden Retreiver, looked on longingly with sad eyes that failed to score him a piece of meat.

After dinner we retired to the basement for dessert and to engage in my favorite activity that doesn't involve putting raspberry pie in my mouth - watching The Office. The highlight of the episode was Andy Bernard (former Daily Show alum Ed Helms) wheeling Michael secretly into a meeting hidden under a hastily constructed cheese platter.

Tom and Amy are avid runners, so they were up even earlier than I was on Saturday morning. I had a full pancake breakfast, packed my freshly laundered clothes and hit the road once again.

Saturday night brings to a close my first four weeks on the road and I decided to give myself the gift of a hotel room. I had previously made a reservation at the La Quinta, but Travis had told me about a newly constructed hotel in the same area. Apparently the La Quinta hasn't had the best year. Murder and prosititution busts will do that to a hotel. But the Country Inn & Suites, they have a clean bill of health from the authorities. Time for a little R & R ...

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Not Whistling Dixie Yet (Philly through Wilmington)



Top: Dale & Eileen Dallabrida, Dot & Joe Dallabrida and me in Wimington on Wednesday night
Middle: Sally Todorow and me outside Walter Hagen Elementary school on Wednesday afternoon
Bottom: Brett, Mike, me, Ann & Jack Schoen in Brookhaven on Tuesday night

By my calculations I had three more days left to enjoy being north of the Mason-Dixon line.. Beyond that the Maryland/Delaware border loomed and with it, undoubtedly secessionists three deep wherever I would look. What? It's not 1859? Sorry, I got caught up in a Ken Burns documentary for a second there.

The weather was threatening rain on Tuesday as I left Philly, but it was just that - threat. The day stayed dry and I walked peacefully through Southwest Philly, out through Darby and then along an endless stretch of Macdade Blvd which eventually brought me to the outskirts of Brookhaven where I would lay my sunhat for the night.

Within a few minutes or arriving at Jack & Ann's Schoen's house, I experience a touch of deja vu. Ranch style house in the Philadelphia suburbs? Check. Phillies game on in the family room? Check. A mother who is waiting on me hand and foot to make sure I'm comfortable? Check. Am I absolutely sure I haven't been transported back to my parent's house in Phoenixville?

I assure myself that can't be the case. When I was in Phoenixville someone made me dinner every night and I didn't have to go to work. That is nothing like what my life is like ... wait a second. Doh!

Despite the similarities to my family, the Schoens are a family unit all their own. Jack and my mother worked together for a time at Ardmore Presbyterian Church and that is how I got connected with them. Ann took care of me just as well as my mother would have. She cooked me dinner. She made me brownies. She asked if I needed any laundry done. If I slipped at any point of the night and called her Joanne, I apologize. But I think I kept my doting mothers straight. It was nice to feel so at home at a place that wasn't my home. Ann's son Brett stopped by so he and I could have a youngest son summit and then his friend Mike came over as well, leading to a cigar smoking session on the back deck. While we solved the world's problems over cigars (like Clinton, I didn't inhale) the Phillies were splitting a double-header with the Marlins, inching every closer to a NL East Pennant. I figured I would cash in and go to sleep while everything was still working in my favor. I had to keep this north-of-the-Mason-Dixon line mojo going, especially since Wednesday I would be addressing the youth of this nation (albeit on a slightly smaller scale than Obama a few weeks ago).

There are words that could aptly describe the industrial corridor between Chester and Wilmington, but beautiful and bucolic are not two of them. I spent much of my day along that corridor on my way to David Harlan Elementary School in North Wilmington. Sally Todorow had invited me to talk to her 5th grade class about my walking journey and my experiences moving to Zimbabwe at the same age her students were now. I was happy to oblige, especially since Sally is my friend Jude's aunt. She had found out about my trip after I stayed with Jude on that first night.

I saw it as my duty to share some of my road wisdom with the 5th graders of North Wilmington, even if it was less widsom and more repackaged platitudes I picked up from podcasts. Just kidding. I was looking forward to my return to the classroom if only for the chance to answer their questions about why someone would be crazy enough to walk 1500 miles and not get paid for it. As it turns out, my return to the classroom was really a return to the auditorium. The other two 5th grade classes had heard about a Z List celebrity visiting the school and had asked to be included. So there I was looking out upon 70 eager young minds, about 65 of which had their hand up to ask a question.

I'm proud to say that I had enough time to answer almost all their questions. I was even asked about my age and was given a look of such incredulity when I told them I was 36 that I will cherish it forever. For the record, the girl asking the question would have guessed 25. She gets my belated thanks for making me feel young again. Now if I could just convince my joints of the same thing.

Over the hour I was with the students we had a great time. I showed them pictures of me in Zimbabwe, I regaled them with stories of corporal punishment in schools there and I told them honestly why I decided to take this journey. After so many afternoons of simply walking and writing, spending time with kids was a really nice change of pace. Thanks to Sally and the other teachers at David Harlan Elementary School for including me in their day.

It was time for my last supper while still behind Union lines. What better place to sup than Delaware - the first state. My dinner companions for the evening were Dale and Eileen Dallabrida and Dale's parents Joe and Dot. First the deja vu of the night before and then dinner with a small, loving grandmother named Dot. If I wasn't so sure I'd planned this journey myself, I would think I am in an episode of This Is Your Life. For those of you who don't know, one of my grandmothers was named Dot. Well, Dot to her friends. Nana Dot to her grandchildren. She died in 1996 and is buried in a peaceful plot of ground not far from her beloved Lake Fairley. So I admit to being very happy to have a chance to share the table with another Dot, especially one who reminds me so much of someone I loved.

Dale and I worked together at Geneva Global, but in different departments. It says a lot about the sense of community engendered by that company that I would feel comfortable emailing a former colleague who I didn't even work closely with two years after last seeing him and say, "Would you mind letting me stay with you for a night." Dale's reply was a quick yes. Such was the spirit of those who worked there.

I'll say it here for the record: I don't think I will ever be a part of a company where its work force got along as well and cared about each other as much as Geneva Global. I worked there for three years and it spring boarded my life in a positive direction which I, quite frankly, almost sabotaged only two weeks in. Thanks to the care of Steve Beck to reach out and convince me to return, and then to the mentorship of my boss Simon Barnes and the friendship of others like Endel, Carolyn and so many others I left Geneva Global a healthier, more confident person than when I arrived. I want my co-workers and friends to know I appreciate that.

For Dale and I, the evening was a chance to get to know one another. His wife Eileen put on a wonderful dinner and Dale and I and his parents shared stories over a glass of wine. Dale was first a musician and then a newspaper man before going on to other opportunities. I can relate to one of those professions but only be in awe of the other. I was impressed that he managed to support himself solely as a musician through his late 20s. He traveled all over the East Coast, writing songs and playing bass for the band Bad Sneakers. He was following his bliss and doing what he loved.

It has almost been a full month that I have been on the road, and the dinners I share with different families every night never cease to be a source of enjoyment for me. I appreciate the work that goes into serving them and the kindness that under girds inviting me into a house and sharing that nightly ritual with me. It is a wonderful way to get to know one another. Even though my night in Wilmington was just one of many, it was definitely my privilege to be a part of the Dallabrida family for those evening hours. I might not be whistling Dixie yet, but the tune I am whistling is certainly one of contentment and gratitude.

Monday, September 21, 2009

A Room With A View


So far on this trip I've had dinner with my parents and walked 8 miles with my dad but I hadn't stayed the night with a family member. 23 nights, 0 relatives. I was glad to end that drought in Philadelphia. According to my dad, who can talk about correct family designations until the cows come home, Julie is my cousin, once-removed. She and her husband Robert were my hosts for the night.

In layman's terms, her mother was my grandfather's older sister. Julie grew up as an only child which meant that she and my father played together a lot at my grandparent's house in Ardmore. That house is still owned by the Poormans but for the first time since 1945 no family members are living there. Christine Poorman, my Nonnie and Julie's Aunt Chris, died in the spring of last year after living there for 63 years. With her death went the passing of an era. It was there at 107 East Montgomery Ave that we would all gather for Christmases, Easters and often Thanksgivings as well. Her house and her love was the glue that kept bringing us all together to enjoy shared meals and celebrations.

Julie lives in Society Hill with her husband Robert which put them right in the eye of my path through downtown Philadelphia. Their condo definitely wins the competition for most amazing view from a bedroom I have slept in so far. I doubt there will be any serious contenders. My guest bedroom looked east across the Delaware River from 21 floors up. They also have full southern and western views looking out over Philadelphia, making quite a breathtaking 180 degree vista.

In the course of our conversation Julie told me that NPR's Fresh Air host Terry Gross lives in her building. I was temporarily star struck in the nerdiest way possible. It gave me a surreal feeling to know that a voice who is such a constant companion to me on this journey through the magic of podcasting was simply a few floors down. In my fantasy I would run into her in the elevator, we would strike up a conversation about what I am doing and next thing I know I would be booked on her show. When she welcomed me to Fresh Air I would know not to say "Thanks Terry" because that is just a rhetorical welcome which is immediately followed by a question. Good friends like me know that. Unfortunately I don't think my story is Fresh Air caliber ... yet. The last program of hers I listened to she was interviewing Ted Danson. I mean Sammy Malone ... now there is a legend. But a guy can dream, right?

I did not run into Terry on our way to dinner. But the three of us did run into some seriously good food. Across the street from their condo is Positano Coast and we put a serious hurting on the mussels, octopus, rabbit, filet mignon, veal and lobster that was put in front of us. As you can see, I'm not a vegetarian and have no plans on becoming one anytime soon.

It was wonderful to be around family and have the ease which comes with that. They showed me pictures from their recent trip to Italy and then to Germany for Robert's birthday (a birthday we share by the way). Venice beckoned me with its festive gondolas and vibrant colors. I immediately starting thinking, "maybe a walk across Europe would be fun ... now there is a book that Terry could put her weight behind."

In the morning, as if to encourage me on my quest, Robert gave me three CDs to download onto my iPod of conversations Terry Gross has had with famous authors over the years. I rode the elevator down with Julie but again, no Terry Gross sighting. I gave Julie a big hug goodbye before setting off south in the direction of Delaware.

As for Terry, I'm content to keep walking in love, fantasizing that our meeting is yet to come.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Weight on My Back (Southwest Philadelphia)


Top: Garth, Jonah, Angela, Gabe, Caleb & Michael, 2009
Below: (top) Brooke, Garth, Sarah, (bottom) Angela, Carole, Johanna, first day of school 1995

I finally weighed by backpack. It's 20 pounds on the nose. That isn't what this post is about. I am referring to the weight of the expectations I have strapped to my back at times in my life and what that has cost me. Walking into Philadelphia forces me to think about what lessons I have learned about how to lighten that load.

I moved to Southwest Philadelphia in late August of 1995, two months after graduating from college. I was starting as a teaching intern at Cornerstone Christian Academy and moved into a house in Southwest Philadelphia with a small group of others who were also interning at the school. I was assigned to help the teachers in the seventh and eighth grades. I had been a journalism major and didn't have any teaching training beyond what I picked up at the Summerbridge program that same summer - working with mini classes of 7 to 8 kids.

These classes were in the neighborhood of 30 to 35 students, but luckily I wasn't the one responsible. I was there to provide help for the full time teachers. Still, some of the days were stressful, especially when it came to establishing and maintaining classroom discipline. I was able to handle it though, especially since as a group of interns we could all go home at the end of the day and commiserate about our respective war stories.

Then February came and a tidal wave hit my carefully constructed cocoon. The eighth grade teacher was fired for drug use in her school-funded apartment and the head of the middle school asked if I could step in as the teacher on a temporary basis. I agreed, but not without a lot of self doubt. All of a sudden the weight of expectations fell all on me. Not only would I be responsible for all those eighth graders, I wouldn't even have an intern to help me.

I remember the night after being asked, with all sorts of fears and worries scurrying through my head. I had trouble sleeping and woke up extra early. I felt a familiar pressure I had known at different points of my childhood - a self imposed type of elevated expectations I never handled well. But instead of opening up to others and sharing my fears, I kept them in. I threw myself into teaching that eighth grade class. February turned into March and March dissolved into Spring and what had been first considered temporary gradually became permanent.

It was undoubtedly the most stressful four and a half months of my life, but somehow I managed to bond with that eighth grade class. In typical 22-year old fashion I personalized every misbehavior and blamed myself for the inability of some of the students to raise their grades. But through it all I was able to keep pushing forward to that finish line in June.

When the last day of school arrived and my eighth graders graduated, it felt like such a colossal weight off my back that I was almost floating around the city. I had a summer trip planned to South Africa and Zimbabwe and a feeling of complete freedom hit me like a cool breeze. All those expectations, all that pressure, gone.

In the excitement of the end of the year, I had agreed to return as a permanent teacher the following school year. You might guess where this is going. As my time in Zimbabwe wound down in August, the weight of my expectations for the next school year start to pile upon me. As the days got closer, they became heavier. I was having a hard time reconciling the intoxicating freedom of my vacation in Southern Africa with the reality that I was soon to return to what suddenly felt like a 9 month prison sentence.

When I returned to prepare for teacher orientation, the pressure got heavier still. My mind started magnifying them, unfavorably comparing the class entering 8th grade with those I taught the previous year. In retrospect, I should have let my friends in on the full scope of my doubts. I should have shared with them how worried I was, laid out some of the crazy expectations I had created for myself so they could have done what friends do and say, "It will be okay. You don't have to do all that. All you got to do is take it one week at a time. The kids will be okay even if you have days that you feel you suck as a teacher. Just roll with it."

I never gave them the chance. Instead, I hesitantly stepped into the first day of school, a bundle of nerves and unrealistic expectations. After the second day, sitting in my classroom after the students left, all I could think of was escape. I took out a piece of paper, wrote a long letter to Seth Cohen who was in charge of the middle school and told him I was leaving. I couldn't do it anymore. Then I was gone. The next day, holed up at my grandparents house in Ardmore, I wouldn't even take his call. In my mind, I had scaled the barbed wire fence and evaded the prison guards. I wasn't looking back.

Less than a month later I was living in Los Angeles and finding an mindless job I wouldn't have to think about for a single second after my workday ended. I wanted a life that felt free. Not free in an objective sense - we are always free in each moment, whether we realize it or not. But free in a subjective sense - free of those expectations and pressures I heaped on myself.

That story has reverberated through my life ever since. I don't regret it, because it had a lesson for me I needed to learn. Experience truly is the greatest teacher. As it turns out, I needed that great teacher a few more times. In the years that have passed since I've come up against those self imposed fears and expectations in a myriad of different ways. Often I have reacted in similar ways as I did back in 1996. The tide, however, is turning.

I am older now. I have more than a few therapy sessions under my belt. Maybe most importantly, I have realized that my mind is not always my friend. It can solve problems, but creates its share as well. It can stop me from trying something I want to do - like finding a job I am passionate about, or walking across country and writing a book about it - by stoking the flames of a deep seeded fear of failure.

What has changed is two fold. First, I now know that the expectations I put on myself are unrealistic, so I know to seek out the counsel of others to give me a reality check. And secondly, I know that "failure" itself is a paper tiger.

So I ask a girl out and she says no. It isn't the end of the world.

I apply for a job and they tell me I'm not what they're looking for. My passport won't be taken away.

I try to write a book about this journey and it turns out not to be as good as I hoped. Well, I have to start somewhere and the next one will be better.

Failure is a teacher, but I have run from that classroom all my life. Up until now. If I don't adopt that type of attitude, I know what will happen. The weight on my back will simply become too much. The 20 actual pounds I have on my back right now is plenty, thank you.

A lot of other good things came from that year in Southwest Philadelphia - my friendship with Angela and Gabe for one. I stayed with them on this night in Southwest Philadelphia, mere blocks from where Angela and I lived as interns in 1995. That year had even a greater effect on their lives. They married three years later and now have two bright young boys - Jonah and Caleb - and another on the way. I'm glad that even though I ran away from that job, I didn't run away from the relationships I formed that year. Those will endure. As will the lessons of that year.

The Lighter Side

Week Three in Review

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Welcoming The Poor Men (Feasterville, PA)


I picked the right day to convince my dad to walk with me for an afternoon. The plan was that we would meet for lunch on the Pennsylvania side of the Burlington-Bristol Bridge and then he would walk the last 8 miles with me. When I arrived in Burlington I couldn't help but notice the huge sign with a pedestrian and a red line going through it at the entrance to the bridge. "Change of plans," I told my dad on the phone. "Pick me up on the NJ side instead."

If he wasn't already heading in my direction I would have had to hitch a ride for the first time on this trip. I will cross that bridge - literally - when it comes. On this afternoon, I cruised across the Delaware River in a Toyota Prius that, while fuel efficient, can't quite mirror the zero carbon emissions of my footsteps.

My father and I have taken a lot of trips together, but I believe this is the first time we have ever walked eight miles together. We have driven through a snowstorm near the Grand Canyon. I've watched him try to order food in horrible French along the Champs-Elysees. He has even white knuckled it along a beautiful stretch of Vermont highway as I brought us from 65 mph to zero in his Honda Sprint with .... wait for it, the handbrake. None of those gorgeous locales prepared us for the glamour and elegance that is Street Road in Bucks County. Okay, I'm lying. All those places were 100 times more beautiful than the stretch of Street Road between Philadephia Park Casino and Bustleton Pike. What made it special was that we were doing it together. Poor"men" walking. This was likely the only time on my trip were walking wouldn't be a solitary activity.

Bucks County is my dad's turf. He runs a non-profit organization called Welcoming the Stranger, which offers free educational classes to immigrants and refugees who have settled in the Bucks County area just north of Philadelphia. While he is busy welcoming strangers, I am wandering around the country being the stranger who is welcomed. It is almost like all the years my parents have been welcoming people and showing them love were giant deposits in a cosmic hospitality bank and now I'm starting to fill out withdrawal slips as I make my way across the country. If that is the case, so be it, because as we like to joke, that is the only inheritance that my brother and I will be getting.

My hosts on Saturday evening were a married couple who my father's program had played a part in welcoming to this country. Oslwaldo and Vilma Lavado came to the US from Peru in early 2001 along with their son Alex. Over the past eight years they have made a home in Feasterville, worked on their English and are now putting their son Alex through college. Oswaldo admits he might like to move back to Peru someday. Vilma prefers staying here. For now, they laugh off their different preferences and are happy to be close to their son.

Let's say this straight off: My Spanish is horrible. In 2001 - ironically the same year Oswaldo and Vilma came to the US and began learning English - I flew to Guatemala for two months in an attempt to master the Spanish language. The only thing I ended up mastering was the route between the immersion school and the local internet cafe in downtown Xela. I learned a few things, I got a bad case of homesickness, I only completed 6 weeks of school instead of 8 and then I flew my girlfriend at the time Nikki down to do a little traveling with me before escaping back to the comforts of Los Angeles. So yeah, I'm not anywhere near fluent in Spanish.

When we arrived I gave speaking Spanish a college try while my father and Oswaldo went to retrieve my dad's car. We soon discovered Vilma's English was much better than my broken, present-tense-only Spanish, and we stuck with that for the rest of the evening. Oswaldo and Vilma served my father and I a Peruvian Feast. I would tell you what we ate, but I would probably get the names of the dishes wrong and almost certainly massacre the spelling, so take my work for it - it was delicious. Both the juice and the dessert Vilma served was made from purple Peruvian corn and was wonderfully sweet. If you haven't figured out by now, I don't shy away from anything sweet. In fact, I advance toward it with fire in my eyes. Five or six glasses of this purple juice later, Oswaldo and Vilma probably figured that out too.

My father said his goodbyes and I went to bed early as I was particularly tired. I had been walking for five straight days and my rest day would be Monday in Philadelphia, a mere 17 miles away. I was really touched by Oswaldo and Vilma's hospitality. They even gave me a Peruvian t-shirt for me to wear along my journey. It occurred to me that they put themselves through a lot of hardships - leaving their home country and their friends, having to learn a new language as adults - so that their son could get an American education. That is the inheritance they have given him.

I've also been given an inheritance that can't be measured in dollars and cents. My parents don't have a huge retirement account, but they are relationship rich. Having seen them live out their priorities over the past 36 years, I've witnessed the fulfillment that comes from always putting people before possessions. Always. I think I am gradually taking that lesson to heart in a practical way. I'm glad to say I've already received my inheritance. What's even better is that they are still here, so I can say thank you. I will take a page from their playbook and say it in Shona - Ndatenda.

Friday, September 18, 2009

A Second Time Around (Columbus, NJ)

As I walked from Princeton Junction to Columbus, a trusted friend was missing. For only the second day of my trip, I didn't have a Bill Simmons podcast to listen to at 9:30am. It has become a one of my favorite traditions on the road, with me mimicking his intro right down the final "Yeahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!" that precedes the start of his podcast.

When the BS Report well runs dry I turn to my other roadside companion - musicals. I thought of the shows I hadn't listened to yet and the choice became obvious. Les Miserables. How could I forget my first experience? I had never been to Broadway until I turned 22. My father picked me up on my birthday and we drove to NYC to see Les Mis. I was already familiar with the music, but the experience in person blew me away. Everything about it was so creative - the staging, the costumes, how one song seamlessly led the next. It was a clinic in storytelling through music.

It is now the year 14 A.B (after Broadway) of my life, but Les Miserables still speaks to me. One story in Victor Hugo's book (also spotlighted in the musical) played a big part in the genesis of my idea to walk across the country. Here is my quick summary:

Right after Jean Valjean is let out of prison with his yellow ticket of parole, he is wandering the countryside, looking for shelter as he tries to make his way back home. Seeing the yellow ticket no one is willing to show him kindness. Valjean gets more and more bitter toward an unforgiving world when a kindly bishop opens the doors of his house to him. The bishop invites Valjean to eat with him and sleep in his comfortable guest room. He treats him like a brother.

That night Valjean cannot sleep. His fears convince him that this kindness shown to him is one of a kind. Thoughts of self preservation leap to his mind. He decides to take advantage of the situation he finds himself in. In the dead of the night he creeps out of his room, collects the bishop's precious silver and steals off into the night, hoping to escape and use the money to start a new life so he never again needs to rely on other people.

The next day, policemen stop him on the road and find the bishop's silver in his bag. Valjean tells them the bishop gave it to him as a gift. Seeing that he is a parolee, they do not believe him and take him back to the bishop's house. The police tell the bishop Valjean's unlikely story. Yet instead of rejoicing at the punishment of someone who has taken advantage of his kindness, the bishop offers even a greater love. He tells the authorities that Valjean's story is true and gives him even more silver, saying his guest forgot it. The dumbfounded police are forced to leave. Valjean has been saved from being sent back to prison for life without parole. His worldview is thrown open and he is led to a redemptive moment that wouldn't have been possible merely after the first act of kindness. It took a second, greater self sacrifice on the part of the bishop.

In the musical, this is what the bishop tells Valjean:

But remember this, my brother
See in this some higher plan
You must use this precious silver
To become an honest man
By the witness of the martyrs
By the Passion and the Blood
God has raised you out of darkness
I have bought your soul for God!

When I first read this story I was affected by it in a way that wasn't totally explainable. I thought it was the most beautiful story of radical human love I had ever read. Kindness, taken advantage of, met by an even more profound kindness a second time around.

I was still thinking about second and third chances when I reached Colubmus, NJ. Appropriately, it was the second time around that I was staying with Cathy Vandegrift and Pete Holsberg. I also stayed with them back in 2003 when I was taking the Greyhound Bus cross country. To the best of my knowledge I did not steal anything from their house on that trip and escape into the New Jersey countryside, but just to keep me honest we decided to include my parents in on this dinner party.

My mother and Cathy have been friends since before I was born. They met while both working at Princeton University in the late 60s. Through all the twists and turns of life - the moves, raising families, wide geographic distance - they have kept in touch and remained friends. In modern times, when life is so much more transitive than before, it is quite a feat to keep a close friend for more than 40 years. That is to be celebrated.

In retrospect, we probably should have been celebrating that at dinner, but instead I got another in a wonderful week's worth of birthday celebrations. There were cards and gifts and a carrot cake (my favorite of the cake family - please don't be jealous Ms. Raspberry Pie) and even a rousing performance of the Polish birthday song "Sto Lat" (May you Live 100 Years). Going to the scorecard, my birthday was celebrated twice in NYC, once in Belford, once in Old Bridge and then punctuated by this wonderful celebration with my parents and Cathy and Pete in Columbus. Even if I do live to 100 years old, I doubt I will forget this year or the love I was shown.

Seeing my parents sitting there with Pete and Cathy, forty some years of friendship in the bank, it got me thinking about friends of my generation and how it can be difficult to stay in touch with them as life takes us in different directions. I have gotten to see some of them on this trip, but most of them don't live along my route. So in the spirit of celebrating friendships, both past and present, let me say thanks now to those I won't get to see on this trip:

To Heidi, Ann, Rick, Sam, Sue and all the other older kids that took me under their wing as a kid and watched out for me growing up. To Paul, you helped make Zimbabwe feel like home. To Derek, I couldn't have imagined getting through high school without your friendship. To Jamie Stein, wherever he may roam, for the great times at college. To Estee, for being by my side and being a great friend when LA was still new. To Noah, my best roommate ev-ah and the McEnroe to my Borg. To Nikki, who shared so many trips and laughs with me that I will never, ever forget her friendship. To Endel, my brother from another mother, for being someone I can be honest with and who always has my back. And to my real brother Aaron, who I love unconditionally. Nothing can come between all the times we have shared.

When I write a paragraph like that, 36 years of memories come flooding back in visual snapshots of shared experiences. It isn't so much a feeling of nostalgia as it is a remembering of what it is to experience love and share friendship. Which leads me back again, a second time around, to the lessons I'm reminded of when I listen to Les Miserables. Its last line is true to my experience of life and more succinct than anything I could write myself ... "To Love Another Person is to See the Face of God."

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Make that check payable to .... (Princeton Junction)



Martha Mikel and Yang Hong grew up worlds apart. Martha was reared in rural Iowa, Yang in the eastern region of Mainline China. In the early 80s they briefly switched places. Yang came to study at Penn State University and Martha visited China through a program at Goshen College. It would have been a story of two airplanes passing in the night had Martha not had taught one of Yang's younger brothers while in China. That led to her eventually being given Yang's contact info. His family knew Yang would enjoy having someone in the US to talk with about China. When she returned to the US, Martha spent an extended period of time in Arizona recuperating from an illness contracted overseas. She and Yang struck up a friendship over the phone. One day she got a check in the mail from Yang for $100. He had found out that she liked ice cream and wanted her to have money to buy all she needed.

If that isn't one of the sweetest stories I've heard on this trip, it's definitely in the top three. The story of how two people meet is fascinating to me. The twists and turns. The distances. The small acts of human kindness that end up cementing something much larger.

The story of how Martha and Yang, a Sacred Music graduate student and an itinerant walker came to be sitting around a dinner table on Thursday night in Princeton Junction is a good bit more straight forward. Martha and Yang decided to list their home in the Mennonite Your Way Hospitality Directory. I had a copy and contacted them about staying the night. They graciously said yes even though they already housing Rob, studying at Westminster Choir College. Together the five of us made an interesting, if motley, crew of diners munching on Chinese dumplings, ground turkey and spices in lettuce wraps. It would be un-Garthian to not finish a meal as tasty as that with dessert, so we each made room for Martha's fruit cobbler topped with vanilla ice cream.

Behind where we were eating I couldn't help but notice an interesting piece of furniture. Yang has a full sized hammock set up in their living room. Of course, I had to give it a spin. Here's my verdict: Indoor hammocks are vastly underrated. Most people use them outside only, but is there any good reason for that? Outside they can deliver four or five months of enjoyment max. Indoors it is a gift that keeps on giving year-round. I'm going to file that idea away for future use, so don't be surprised if you visit me one day and find me swaying away in my living room while watching a tennis match.

Yang, their daughter Lydia and Rob were all out of the house early the next morning. I was due to leave at 8am, but then Martha ran an interesting proposition past me. She had told her chiropractor about my walk and he wanted to give me a free adjustment. Carrying around 25 pounds on my back for 6 hours a day can't be best strategy for my long term lumbar health, so I decided to take him up on the offer. Fifteen minutes later and a couple-a-few hits with a 40-lb accu-pressure device and my vertebrae were better adjusted than ... well, probably ever. I'd never been to a chiropractor. For a first experience Dr. Schulmann couldn't have made it any easier. If you are in Grover's Corner (home to Orson Wells' famous War of the Worlds farce) look him up. Tell him the walking Poorman sent you.

I now count myself as one of the beneficiaries of Martha and Yang's long distance love story. And if any eligible woman wants to send me a $100 check so I keep myself in raspberry pies for the next four months, don't hesitate to do so. Maybe, just maybe, I'll make an honest woman out of you.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Wonder Twin Powers Activate (Old Bridge, NJ)

As a kid I loved the Wonder Twins. A dangerous situation would arise and these two seemingly normal siblings would touch each other's fists, say "Wonder Twin Powers Activate, in the form of ..." and one would usually change into an eagle while the other, somewhat less glamorously, would get to be a pail of water. In this way, week after week, the Wonder Twins would thwart the bad guys. The moral of the story being the power of two is always greater than the power of one.

That is a lesson I was reminded of on Wednesday night. Up until a week before arriving in the Freehold area, all my attempts to find a host had been unsuccessful. I was in need of a superhero to save the day. Lucky for me, I got two for the price of one, my own Providential version of the Wonder Twins.

Janet and Joyce aren't really twins but they are sisters. I've known Janet for the past two years. She is the HR Director at the American Bible Society and probably the first person I talked to after getting my job in August of 2007. Ever since that day, I've known that I had Janet in my corner. She helped me navigate ABS policies and employee benefits, she took me out to lunch when I started and again before I left. She even drove all the way down to PA to attend my going away party at Simon's house. Most importantly, she made ABS a more enjoyable place to work and she did it all with a smile. In return, all she ever asked of me was occasional help with formatting company organizational charts in Microsoft Visio. All in all, a pretty good bargain.

I knew Janet lived in the Old Bridge area, but that was 20 minutes by car from where I was walking. But faced with not having a place to stay, I fired off a quick email asking for help. It didn't take long for the reply to come. "Of course we can pick you up and then drop you back off on your route in the morning. And Happy Birthday," she wrote, remembering I was about to turn 36.

With the date set for Wednesday night, the Wonder Twin powers activated. There was no eagle or pail of water, just out of this world hospitality. For starters, Janet gave me her master bedroom and slept in her nephew's room for the night. Then she took me out to a steak dinner at Outback along with Janice and her two sons Justin and Jason. One 9oz. Victoria Cut Steak, mashed potatoes, some coconut shrimp and a salad later I was wondering if I might have to peel myself out of the booth.

When we returned home, in an effort to work off some of the calories I just packed on, Janet, Jason and I went downstairs to play some ping pong. Those who know me well might remember that I was a bit of a ping pong prodigy in my earlier years. Some time has passed and I don't play that often, but it was an absolute blast to try and turn back the clock and rekindle some of that competitive spirit against my two unsuspecting opponents. I won't divulge who won, especially since the results have not yet been certified by the US Table Tennis Association, but I will say that both of them put up a valiant fight. My only worry is that with all this ping pong and wandering around the United States people might start calling me Forrest Gump. I wouldn't mind so much if I can be assured that Tom Hanks will option the story of this journey and star as me in the cinematic debut of "Poorman Walking".

I digress. Janet and Joyce were not done pampering me yet. We celebrated my belated birthday with one of Janet's famous cheesecakes and some of Joyce's chocolate chip cookies fresh out of the oven. I had some writing to do before going to sleep but all the blood that should have been flowing to my brain was in my stomach instead. I dragged myself up to the master bedroom and turned on my computer, but even an earlier cup of coffee couldn't stave off the inevitable sleep. Sweet, sweet sleep. Nutritionists always say it isn't healthy to go to sleep on a full stomach, but don't they know how good it feels? That night it felt like pure bliss. And I followed it.

In the morning Joyce and Janet cooked me breakfast and Joyce packed a sandwich, some cookies and bite sized Snickers bars in a bag for me to take on the road. She dropped me back off on my route, headed toward Princeton Junction. From 5:30pm the previous evening until I was dropped off at 8:30am, Janet and Joyce saw to my every need and did so with a loving heart and an enthusiastic spirit.

I could help Janet her with her org charts from now until eternity and it would still pale in comparison to the generous help she and Joyce offered me when I didn't have anywhere else to turn. I guess I might have to start believing in superheros again.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Best Thing About Love (Belford, NJ)



Tuesday was my first day back on the road after 48 hours of rest in New York City. In honor of a more gradual return to my concrete and asphalt existence, I decided to take a short cut. This trip is more about the people I meet than it is about walking every literal yard between West Hebron and New Orleans in an unbroken line. So there is always room for a little improvisation. In that spirit I decided to walk to the Wall Street dock and take a ferry to Belford, NJ. It turned out to be a perfect plan for three reasons:

1. It saved me from having to battle through the industrial corridor of NJ which parallels Manhattan.
2. It forced me to temporarily face my irrational fear of being out on boats in large bodies of water (for back story please refer to: Ferry, Catalina Island and Boat, Lake Atitlan)
3. It meant that I only had to walk 7 miles instead of my usual 18, thereby giving me more energy for my evening in Belford with Tyler and Chelsea.

Tyler and Chelsea Baxter are two of my favorite kids in the world. That isn't surprising since their parents Don and Karen are two of my favorite adults. The fruit never falls far from the tree. Tyler is 4 and Chelsea is 2. My nephews Marco and Ivan have long since sped past that age range on their race toward adolescence, so Tyler and Chelsea are now my primary entree into the world of the boundless energy of youth.

It should go without saying that I no longer put the word boundless in front of energy when talking about myself. That ship sailed somewhere during the Reagan administration. Now I have situational energy. I can summon it for fits and bursts when I am around kids, but give me a Saturday afternoon by myself and I will be making casts of my face in the nearest pillow. That's just how it is.

When I arrived Chelsea was taking a nap, but Tyler was there to welcome Garf with open arms. (Kids under five tend to replace my "th" with an "f") Even though Tyler had been awaiting my arrival, I was spared an all out assault by Karen's constant reminders to him that I had been walking for a long time and needed some rest. So Tyler was content to run and jump and ask questions like a moon in my orbit without trying to use me as a trampoline. We played with my camera. We shared some grapes. He helped me stretch. Chelsea awoke from her nap and joined the party, sitting with me on the couch, showing me her doll and doing her 2-year-old best to talk with me about her favorite subject - her mommy.

Then there were the hugs and kisses. Lots of them. For their sometimes exhausting energy, kids have the unique ability to love freely and unself-consciously. That is a quality I could learn from. It seems like everything I do is saturated with consciousness of what others around me are thinking. It gets tiring. Maybe that lack of excessive pride and self-consciousness was one of the things Jesus was referring to when he said that we should become like children or not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Any way I look at it, I was on the receiving end of tons of love Tuesday night. Between Tyler and Chelsea's hugs and kisses and the way Don and Karen went out of their way to make me feel at home and fill me up with delicious food, I was one very blessed soul.

When my eyes opened the next morning at 6:55 am, Tyler was patiently standing sentry next to my bed, careful to follow his Dad's instructions to not wake me up. But as soon as he saw I was awake, he launched into a conversation about what was on his mind. I thought to myself, I don't know how parents manage to juggle it all raising two young kids. I would be ex. haus. ted.

I'm 36 and have not yet had the urge to have kids of my own. Right now I'm still leaning more toward a coconut tree as my legacy to the world. (If you don't know what that means, find a Ghanaian). But on visits like this I can peek in on family life and appreciate the beauty, joy and discovery that come along with the more challenging aspects of raising young kids. At dinner the night before Don had turned to Tyler and said, "Do you remember what you told me the best thing about love was buddy?" Tyler paused for a second, then responded, "sharing it."

Well said, buddy. I would give Tyler credit for encapsulating the lesson of this journey in a simple two word answer, but I doubt he would care. He has couches to jump off of. Leave it to the grown ups to ponder the meaning of everything. Kids are too busy living and loving in the moment.

Monday, September 14, 2009

They Say It's Your Birthday ... (New York City)


One of the reasons I decided to start my trip on August 31st was that I knew it would take me two weeks to reach New York City. That would mean being able to celebrate my birthday with my closest friends in the city I call home.

So ever since I took that first step from West Hebron, I've had September 13th circled on my calendar. On that afternoon I knew I would walk back across the George Washington Bridge and weave my way through Harlem to reach Claire's apartment. I might be technically homeless right now, but as long as Claire has a place on the Upper (upper) East Side I know there is room for me in her deluxe apartment in the sky-high-high.

There are people in my life who have had a passing impact, then there are those whose impact has been so profound that it is difficult to put into words. I'm gonna try anyway. Claire and I have been best friends for over four years now. We met at Lehigh University, went many years without keeping in touch and then reconnected in 2005. Had I not tracked her down four years ago, I probably wouldn't even be living in NYC today. There are many things I could say about how important Claire is to me, but you have lives to live and I want to avoid early onset arthritis. So I will just say this: our friendship has allowed me to experience conscious, unconditional love in a very special way and knowing her has challenged me to give mySelf more of the self forgiveness and acceptance that I need. Lest I get too misty eyed, I will temper my praise by saying that somehow, even after four years of being my primary audience, Claire still has not developed an appreciation of my amazing singing voice. A total tin ear. Well, nobody can be perfect. :)

With Claire's apartment as my home base, I had my nights planned out for maximum enjoyment and relaxation. A quiet homemade dinner with Claire on Saturday night. Dinner with Claire, Andrew & Valentina down in Chinatown on Sunday night. Then a birthday meal with long time college buddies Ray and Jeff on Monday. On a trip that is all about appreciating the joy people bring into my life, I wanted to be intentional about spending time with those who know me the best.

By the time Tuesday morning came and it was time to pack up my bag again and say goodbye to New York City for a second time, I felt a twinge of fear and hesitancy. It was one thing to be walking from West Hebron, knowing I was working my way down the Hudson River toward New York City. But now I would be walking away from my home, from my support network. What loomed ahead came into focus: four months of wandering, of having faith that the further and further I roam from home that there will be people in those unfamiliar places to house and feed me. At that moment, it felt like a huge leap of faith. Then the words of Joseph Campbell came back to comfort me. Follow your bliss, he wrote, and doors will open for you. That has certainly been my experience so far, so why wouldn't it continue to be?

That isn't to say that large challenges and more fear might not await me down the road. In fact, I'm expecting them. That is where something Ray and Jeff and I talked about last night has to come into play: perseverance. Up until now, I've let my fear of the unknown convince me to abandon projects prematurely, to return tail between my legs to the comfort of my "known world"'. When that happens, there is no growth. This time, I will persevere. I know my best friends will remind me of that when times get challenging. With that assurance I walk on.

Friday, September 11, 2009

All Because Two People Fell In Love


When I knew I would be needing a place to stay in the Hawthorne/Paramus area I flipped through my mental Rolodex of who I might know in the area. It came up blank. My parents reminded me that the Veenstras had a family home in Hawthorne and that they likely still live there. A quick jump over to zabasearch.com gave me an address and I wrote Roger & Carolyn a letter. Then I waited.

I didn't have to wait long. A couple days later my phone rang and it was Roger. By all means, he said, their house is open to me. What made that moment and his willingness so special was that I had not spoken to or seen Roger Veenstra since I was 6 years old. As in, just finished the first grade.

Roger, his wife Carolyn and their five children (Susan, Sandra, Randy, Rodney & Luanne) spent two summers up in West Hebron directing the Summer Youth Ministry in 1979 & 1980. To say that I loved Summer Youth Ministry would be an understatement. Most of the coolest activities were reserved for senior and junior high age groups, and I openly envied those who got to participate. Luckily as the preacher's kid I got to sneak in to one or two as a hanger-on when my dad attended.

The summers Roger & Carolyn directed the program are the first that I remember. What is most vivid in my memory bank can pretty much be summarized in one word: fishing. Roger loved to fish and my brother and I loved going with him up to Barkley's Lake. The feel and smell and meditative energy of getting out on the lake at 5:30 or 6:00am are still potent to me.

Unfortunately, when the night that I was coming through Hawthorne was confirmed, it turned out that Roger and Carolyn would be at the shore celebrating an annual tradition with friends. Never fear, they said. Their daughter Sandra and her family were staying with them for six months on home leave from their ministry work in the Dominican Republican and they would be home to welcome me.

So Sandra and her husband Steve and two of their children - Hannah and Mark - drove the welcome wagon for me in Hawthorne, with a special assist from Randy, the Veenstra's first son, who very thoughtfully went out of his way to stop over later in the night to say hello. There was plenty to talk about around the dinner table and afterward. Roger & Carolyn's family, with five children, sons and daughters-in-law and somewhere in the neighborhood of 18 grandchildren has deep roots. There is a large family photograph of all them that hangs in the living room that tells the story with a single phrase. Above the painting reads, "All Because Two People Fell in Love".

There was one other treasure trove of interest for me in the Veenstra household. Roger had thoughtfully gone through his keepsakes and pulled out his scrapbook from those summers they spent in West Hebron for me to look at. There is something exciting about seeing pictures from long ago that I have never seen before. It's a different type of enjoyment than the pleasant warmth of seeing your own family's pictures. This feels almost like discovery. There in front of me were all the familiar faces of my youth. Pictures of my uncle John and his wife Bobby right after she arrived in Hebron and they started dating. Photos of my grandfather Big Daddy presiding over the BBQ pit on a Hebron Day. There were snapshots of the senior high youth group at a retreat - Andrea & Rick Waite, Chris Worthington, Sam & Sue Coldwell, Jerry Weaver - all the older kids I looked up to in my early days. Seeing those filled me with appreciation for where I grew up and for the tight knit community that shaped those first 10 years of my life.

Also in his scrapbook was the original job description for the Director of the Summer Youth Ministry. Whoever wrote it (my dad doesn't claim authorship) indicated that the program was started to combat a general aimlessness among local youth during the summer. That made me laugh out loud. Whether we were truly aimless or not, the directors who I remember leading that program, especially Roger Veenstra and Bob Myers who each did it for two years, brought a lot of God's love in action to West Hebron. And for a rousing salary of about $125 a week, I think we know that love was pretty much the only motivating factor. That love lives on in each of the lives they touched.

A Short Meditation on 9-11

On the eighth anniversary of 9-11, I'm only 14 miles away from NYC, taking shelter from a rain storm in a Northern New Jersey. Eight years ago I was what felt like light years away, living in California.

I was 27 years old when that tragedy struck, when the collective consciousness of the nation was traumatized and, more acutely, thousands of individual families had to come to grips with the sudden and horrific death of loved ones. In the zealotry of my youth I remember writing a letter and sending it out to a group of friends, trying to process what the attacks meant to me. I'm glad I can't find it in my email files because I think it would be pretty tough to read.

My hunch is that at the time I used it as a platform to preach about what I was against - both the wanton killing done by those hijackers but also the historical record of America's interventionism around the world and the killings associated with that. Someone on a podcast I listened to recently made the observation that people in their teens and 20s often define themselves primarily by what they are against. I certainly was an example of that.

I hope that if this trip is teaching me anything it is to define myself by what I am for - community, loving one another, being Present and trying to be an agent of creation. As the soon-to-be 36 year old version of myself thinks back on that day eight years ago, now all I feel is an empathy for those who lost people who were part of their lives, people who they shared meals with, watched sports with, raised kids with, called when they had a problem or wanted to share a joy. In a blink of an eye, those relationships were ended.

I hope those people who lost family and friends have come to a place of peace and have been able to move forward. When I reflect on the lessons of 9-11 now, I think more micro than macro, and I remind myself to be Present with those I love as I interact with them each day. Nothing else is real.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The More Things Change, The More They Stay the Same (Pomona, NY)


There have been two or three occasions on this trip where I've arrived at someone's house who hasn't seen me for 20 or 30 years and the first thing they say is, "Wow, you look so much like your father." I've seen Steve Waite a number of times over the past few years, but as my ferry pulled up to the dock in Haverstraw, NY and I saw him waiting to greet me I thought the exact same thing. Wow, he looks a lot like his father.

If the final verdict is that Steve and I look a lot like our fathers, we are happy to accept that compliment. Even a higher compliment would be to say that we are like our fathers. Two more honorable, friendly and loving people you couldn't find, even if you had a month of Sundays to look.

My family and the Waites lived across the street from each other in West Hebron from 1970 to 1983. During those 13 years a friendship was forged that has lasted the 26 years since. I was alive for 10 of those years, which meant that Dick and Margaret were surrogate parents to me, and their four kids - Steve, Heidi, Andrea and Rick - felt like my older siblings. At one time or another all of them babysat for Aaron and me. Our houses were like annexes of each another. There was a complete open door policy. Come in and come out whenever you please.

I stayed with Dick and Margaret in that same house last Sunday night before the first day of this walk. Steve and his brother and sisters all have familes and are spread out around the Northeast. So whenever I am taking one of my cross country odysseys I always try to route myself through their locations. In 1998 I watched Mark McGwire break Roger Maris' home run record with Rick out near Rochester. In 2003 I celebrated my 30th birthday with Andrea in Vermont and then with Heidi that same evening in Boston. On those two trips I hadn't been able to swing by and see Steve. This time we were both in the right place at the right time.

Steve lives in Plattsburg, NY but his job is in Pearl River, 280 miles south of Plattsburg on the western side of the Hudson River. He does a weekly commute, Sunday night through Friday afternoon. I had been walking down the eastern side of the Hudson and by Thursday afternoon I was as far down as Ossining, just across the river from Steve. A quick ferry ride is all it took to land in same spot.

Steve drove me down to Pearl River to see the huge Wyeth plant where he works. Then we stopped into a restaurant in Nanuet for some seriously good pizza. We did quite a number a large pepperoni and sausage pie, with me leading the battle charge, and then we retired to his weekday residence - a one bedroom with wood floors that has everything a guy needs to get him through a work week. A few staples in the fridge. A comfortable bed. A sofa, a reclining chair and a flat screen TV to set in front of them.

I kicked back on the recliner and Steve dropped down on the couch and we turned on the Steelers/Titans game which was opening the 2009 NFL season. As we were both spread out on the furniture in front of the football game, I remembered a family photograph from January 1973, just months before I was born. In it my father and Dick Waite are on adjoining couches, napping in front of the television while the Dolphins and Redskins played Super Bowl VII. There were two friends, comfortable in each other's presence ... and sleeping through the history of the Dolphins undeafted season being engraved in the history books.

There wasn't as much history at stake in the Steelers/Titans game, but Steve and I would soon be asleep. We are both creatures of habit, and when 10pm came around it was bedtime. It's nice to know that 36 years can pass between one photo and another, but certain things stay the same. Just like our fathers, we will always remain friends. That's a comparison we are happy to live up to.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

A Slice of Jamaica on the Hudson (Peekskill, NY)


Rev. Cherie Philips pulled up to the parking lot of the United Methodist Church in Peekskill with a big smile on her face. I jumped into her car and introduced myself. It was yet another "first" meeting, but it didn't feel like it. I instantly felt at home with her.

When planning out my first month I wrote to the Peekskill United Methodist Church to ask if they could help me find a host for the night. I mentioned I had been working at the American Bible Society for two years and a co-worker of mine, Dr. Joseph Crockett, sent along a very kind letter of recommendation as a fellow Methodist. She briefly considered who she might ask in her congregation before deciding to simply host me herself.

As we drove back to her house she admitted that despite having talked to me on the phone, she had never taken the time to call the Bible Society and see if my story was true. So that very day she had talked to someone in the President's office who luckily confirmed my former employment and mentioned that I was the guy with the crazy idea of walking half way across the United States. Guilty as charged.

With my identity verified, Cherie and her family welcomed me with arms wide open. She, her husband and their two sons (Arron in college, Jordan a senior in HS) have lived in the Peekskill area for quite a few years. But she was Jamaican born and bred until the age of 30 when she came to the US with the idea of getting her MBA. Instead, she continued to practice law, which she had been doing in Jamaica. It wasn't until earlier this decade that she heard the call to become a pastor and went to seminary. This is her second full year as pastor of both the church in Peekskill and another small congregation nearby.

As soon as I arrived at her house I was introduced to Mamas, the affectionate nickname for her husband's mother who was there for an extended visit. Mamas embraced me with a smile just as welcoming as Cherie's was a few minutes before. Together we sat in the kitchen while Cherie wove her magic. On the menu was a household favorite dish Mexicali (ground beef, vegetables and spices baked together with a cornbread topping) alongside some typical Jamaican favorites - jerk chicken wings and sweet plantains. Is it possible that I might make it to New Orleans weighing more than when I started? If I ate food as good as this each night, it would surely be in the realm of possiblity.

Cherie, Mamas and I fell into an easy, wide ranging conversation as if I had been a weekly dinner guest. We talked about Jamaica, about her trip to Ghana, about life as a small town pastor, about my plans for the road ahead. By the time her husband came home I was in convulsions of hunger from the wonderful cooking scents all around me. I ate my fill, then ate some more. Then I piled some ice cream on top of that.

But Cherie wasn't done just yet. The next morning she got up earlier than usual to make me a full breakfast - omelette and all - and send me out on the hilliest day of my journey yet with plenty of protein for the road. I gave her and Mamas a hug on my way out and waved goodbye to a household that was part Jamaican, part American, but all love. Isn't that what it is all about?