In Memoriam

I woke up to news this morning that I could scarce comprehend: a soldier of mine had lost his life, cause undeclared.

I was always conflicted about serving in the Afghan war – college wrought an idealogical transformation that put me forever at odds with the government’s foreign policy – but I was never conflicted about my commitment to the wellbeing of my soldiers. It was my greatest joy to put every single one of them on a plane back to Germany at the end of the deployment, perhaps a bit roughed up, but alive and well; I didn’t have to live with the terrible burden of informing a mother of her son’s passing. This one thing I ardently believe: no woman ought to live to bury her son.

But nature is indifferent to our beliefs.

The same day that I gained my freedom, my old platoon medic lost his life. He was 21, having deployed to Afghanistan at 19 and showing us all what a man under fire can be. He was disarmingly young, baby faced even, yet despite his youth, he was a fierce soldier. When he, with a steady hand amid a cloud of acrid smoke, patched up two men who had been wounded by a detonating suicide vehicle borne improvised explosive device (VBIED), he showed us just what army training coupled with personal mettle can produce. I was proud to see him pinned his Combat Medic Badge, though the dude was so stunned by the pinning that he passed out and fell over – a comedic moment for sure. The young kid was no worse for the wear. 

I left my platoon leader position for a desk in an office midway through my deployment, but I never lost sight of the soldiers that my non-commissioned officers and I personally prepared for combat. I also personally laid the coordination to send them home, and as I was sifting through flight manifests, I checked every single one of my soldiers against those manifests, my mind put at ease as the list of the missing narrowed down to zero. 

Of course, I knew that there had been no combat casualties in my platoon; working as the chief of operations for my unit, my job was to aggregate and publish each day’s significant events. I did this from the time I left my platoon until my unit left Afghanistan. I also knew that other units had borne terrible losses – a helicopter full of men went down in the mountains to the northeast of us, killing all of them; a Ranger raid to our north went bad, killing many, among them Jennifer Moreno, a friend to my friends; a lone young soldier in an anonymous uniform walked into a deserted dining facility at Kandahar Air Field, put his rifle to his throat, and pulled the trigger. All events were tragic, but none were directly personal. And yet, I grieved for all of them, for shattered youth, for dreams forever deferred.

I thought we had made it back whole. I was proud of those boys, those fantastic young men who had banded together to face the most significant experience of their young lives and surmount the slow itch of sheer boredom and the the thrill of frenetic activity together. I thought that we would all remain forever connected, our lives irrevocably intertwined. But the passing of years coupled with the way that people flow in, out, and around the army wears at relationships – not that the commitment to one another fades, but the frequency of contact certainly does. Even in this era of eternal connectivity, I lost sight of Doc Nieto.

And then I woke up to news of his death. 

There’s an oft touted statistic – 22 veterans commit suicide a day. This is used as a rallying cry to do something about an epidemic raging through the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. This statistic is disputed; the majority of veterans committing suicide are over 60 years old, Vietnam vets undoubtedly in need of greater care. Iraq and Afghanistan veterans kill themselves at closer to one a day – but even one needless death is too many. I respect the motivation behind the 22 push-up challenge going around Facebook, the work to bring awareness to a blight on our nation, my brothers and sisters. I respect more the effort to tell the stories of our fallen: moments shared, memories relived. Every story is worth the telling; every life has worth; and every death is a tragedy. 

I don’t know what Doc Nieto was going through, nor do I know the cause of his passing. One of my peers, seemingly perfectly healthy, died on a run – just fell over and was done; another died peacefully in his sleep. Weird things happen. But at such a young age for such a physically healthy young man, one cannot help but draw logical conclusions, and it hurts. It hurts that I was not there for him. It hurts to think that he suffered to such a point that he felt death preferable to life. I know this pain; I credit music, literature, family, and friends for sustaining me through some very rough times. And now, I’m pursuing my own dream, deferred no longer. 

Life is worth living. Dreams are worth pursuing. It’s never too late to change. It’s never too late to learn something new – and it’s certainly never too late to reach out to somebody you haven’t spoken to in years. So write an email. Send a text message. Make a phone call. They matter. God, do they matter. 

Just do it.  

 

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Testing, testing, testing 

Hello gentle people,

This is a test of my personal broadcasting system. From henceforth, all correspondence will flow from my handheld digital device out to the world at large (you, my fantastic readers).

Over the past year, my Appalachian Trail ambition has evolved from a fuzzy eventuality to a crystallized plan, complicated in a way that only a logistician can truly enjoy. Owing to a particular mode of European life, I have acquired most everything (save the Haribo gummies) through the United States Postal Service. Research and the military theory (not oft employed) of backwards planning gave me the framework to, say, order 40 pounds of peanuts and 25 pounds of dried fruit with respect to its shelf life, and those and other culinary delights fill each of the (now) seventeen large Priority Mail boxes, each weighing just under 16 pounds to provide for a week of sustainment. My dauntless husband Loc, who only so recently came into my life, will send me each weekly installment with the same trepidation of anybody using a military post office with a definite deadline (no less than two weeks lead!). I owe him a debt of gratitude, payable upon my return by a steady presence ever afterward – he’s so easy to love.

Not pictured: one box.

I received my coveted DD214, the document releasing me from military service, this past Thursday. Of particular pleasure is the printed date of my final day of my reserve requirement: 00000000 (YYYYMMDD). Yup, no reserve requirement – I really am just free! I also received a well researched and thoughtfully written award and final evaluation from my boss, which will serve me well in the pursuit of future employment. I leave the military with a lingering dislike of government bureaucracy, but with gratitude and appreciation for the people and experiences that have shaped who I am today. I am, among all men, most richly blessed.

Tomorrow, Sunday 1 May 2016, I fly from Munich to Washington, DC. I’ll be staying with an old high school buddy, acquiring a last few items on Monday (phone plan and fuel), and embarking on my Appalachian adventure on Tuesday, 3 May 2016. I will hike northbound from Harper’s Ferry to Mount Katahdin, then I will stay with another good high school buddy until my flight back to DC. After Independence Day festivities in the Capitol, I will embark on my southbound voyage to Mount Springer. I’m dreadfully serious about my ambition to feed young Ranger stud Snickers bars at the southern terminus too… one of my old army buddies is a Ranger Instructor in Dahlonega, GA, and I intend to complicate his existence. Game on, ole buddy.

I’ll be hiking an average of 18 miles a day – me and my little Lego Loc. I’ll post daily pics on my Instagram (@gingerguyjay) of my little buddy and me… and I’m not bringing a razor.

Slightly giddy with anticipation

You’re welcome to come along.

James

So why the AT?

As some of you may know, I spent 139 days in the Ranger School as a newly minted 2LT, and my favorite of the three phases, if one can have a favorite level of hell, is the mountain phase. The mountain phase is based in Dahlonega, GA, and is chock full of ropes, knots, belays, rappels, and beautiful vistas – my kind of place. In my time, it even had leadership that I admired. Consequently, the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail lies deep in Ranger country. I discovered this quite by accident when my bewildered patrol bumped into a group of amused locals sitting quite near to one of those famous AT blazes – we were humping 100 pounds on our backs, and they were sitting in camp chairs, drinking beers. Hmm.

Fast forward three years, and I’m sitting in a field in Bavaria in May, a month out of my most recent deployment, accomplishing absolutely nothing for the Army  as my unit’s night liaison to their headquarters element. The promotion board is in deliberation; I’ve already been passed over once and am awaiting the results of round two, due in July. For reasons unfathomable to me, I certified my board file, as if to show sincere interest in giving the army a second shot. But truth be told, when I was honest with myself, I most wanted to be passed over a second time and granted a clean break – and an involuntary separation is the cleanest of clean breaks.

Given a fair degree of waffling over my uncertain future (it would be another three months until I met Loc), I decided then and there that my one certainty for the following spring was the Appalachian Trail. I figured that if Jennifer Pharr Davis and Scott Jurek can do it in less than 60 days, surely I can do it in 139 days. In my melodramatic mind, I’d envisioned  an ascent from darkness into light, a battery gradually charging, paralleling in reverse my journey from light into darkness back in 2011/12. I would start in the heart of Ranger country and walk 2,200 purifying miles north, releasing my pent up negativity and replacing it with optimism for the future. Detox complete, I’d be able to reenter the world as a well adjusted veteran, ready to jump into the work force. I spent that month of night shifts in the field researching and, with an eye toward the ultralight, purchasing my gear.

Instead of a July release, the Army published board results in October, pushing my earliest anticipated release from February  to May. I was not surprised, and actually quite appreciated the additional preparation time afforded me. My boss at this time, a good man through and through, asked that I see the unit through the deployment in early January in exchange for four months to pursue my own ends. I fulfilled my end of the deal, and he’s kept his – there’s at least one trustworthy soul in senior leadership.

In order to keep with my desire to be in New York in June, I’d have to re-tinker my plans, and accordingly, I opted for a flip-flop hike: I would start in Harper’s Ferry, the spiritual halfway point of the Trail, and walk north to reunite with my high school friend Sarah, then fly back to DC to hitch back to Harper’s Ferry to commence my southbound hike down into Ranger country. My coworkers figured I would do something like that. I figured that I preferred walking with spring while I could, rather than walking with summer for the duration. I’m of English/Scandinavian descent, after all – the sun does not favor my people. While the flip flop hike is not what I had originally intended, a linear progression away from what I resent most,  it is a fun twist on a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

So, my primary reason for my hike is to walk the Army out of my system. Earl Shaffer, the original thru hiker, stated the same as his motivation, after he had served a three year assignment in the Pacific Theater of World War Two. It is a multidimensional break between where I’ve been and where I’m going, and I am honored to walk in his footsteps.

But, of course, I wouldn’t be hiking this hike if I hadn’t long wanted to do it. I spent the preponderance of my life through my commissioning in New York State, and between my time in the Boy Scouts and my time at West Point, I gained a deep appreciation for the great outdoors, and a specific appreciation for that trail that cuts right across the Bear Mountain Bridge, six miles south of my rocky highland home. I even hiked the section from Cold Spring to the NY/CT border in an erstwhile effort with friends, and shattered my big toe in the process. Miraculously, we emerged from the forest battered but intact to find a platform serving the Harlem line of the MTA – it stops three times on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, and we caught one of those trains straight into Grand Central Station, where my friend’s father met us and drove us back to a feast at his Staten Island home. It was glorious. With much indignity and time, I got better, and my hunger for the trail grew. Auspiciously, I had learned the dramatic consequences of  inexperience and an overloaded pack – a lesson one need learn but once.

Back to Germany. I’ve been working in my unit’s plans and operations cell since April 2013. I started as the land and ammunition manager, and ended juggling more titles and responsibilities than I care to name, chief among them the responsibility for orchestrating unit deployments. For the uninitiated, that’s an umbrella term for a whole lot of frenetic activity, a duty from which people run. I finished coordinating my last deployment in January this year, two months after I had been handed my second non-promotion. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve woken up dreaming of shipping containers or HAZMAT labels in the past three years.

Of things I missed most in that period, the chief among them was a chance to think, to reflect, to meditate, to savor small moments of beauty slowly. See Trail, Appalachian. Of note, Dick Winters also sought meditative recuperation after his service in the war. He’s another man in whose footsteps I don’t mind treading, in spirit if nothing else.

Speaking of walking in the spirit of another, I happened upon a podcast called Paul’s Boots in my planning phase. I was immediately struck by the beauty of the message – a woman wished to give her recently deceased husband a fulfillment of his last desire, to walk the Appalachian Trail. She had three pairs of highly polish boots he had left behind for his own journey and asked that any willing bodies take them for however long they felt they could. The team at the Dirtbag Diaries received an enormous outpouring of support; REI picked up the cause;  and a plan was hatched to have those boots traverse the trail in its entirety. Of hundreds of applicants, I’ve been given the great privilege of carrying that beautiful gift to a grieving woman on my homecoming journey through my home state.

And last, I’ve been living abroad since September 2012; this hike is indeed a homecoming. I chose to live an international life when I elected to study Arabic and French at West Point. I branched infantry because I bought into the party line just enough to believe that that was the best way to affect change in a system sorely needing change, and branching infantry afforded me an opportunity to post to Germany. Choosing Germany was the fulfillment of years of ambition, and I have been privileged to live here. Today, however, I do feel estranged from my roots – I feel like I don’t know the country that America has become. For a while, I seriously contemplated seeking permanent residency abroad, even new citizenship, but I feel a loyalty to my country, if for nothing else, to improve it in whatever way I can. The Appalachian Trail is a chance to reconnect with my roots, and come to know the people and landscapes of contemporary America firsthand. It is, after all, my homeland.

Oh, and the Trail gave me a hell of a chance to synthesize a wide array of my skills and predilections into a coherent whole. I’ve spent the past four months refining my gear list, honing in on select excursions beyond the trail, and building an entire arsenal of weekly resupply boxes, replete with the food that I actually enjoy eating. It’s been a complex and invigorating challenge, and one that is just coming to a close; I’ll ship my first box tomorrow.

Release, renew, recharge, rejoice – that is the path laid ahead.

I relish the opportunity.

 

 

It’s the Final Countdown

Well folks, April has arrived – one month until the start of my Appalachian Adventure!

Actually, 25 days until my flight, and 27 days until I step. Woof.

Preparations are ramping up, and my vision is beginning solidify. Twenty five Priority Mail boxes, each filled with the caloric and nutritional requirements to feed a walking James for a week in the woods. Inside each of those 25 Priority Mail boxes, 7 bags of breakfast grains in snack size ZipLocks, 10 granola bars, one bag of Haribo gummy creations – right now, that is; I’ve got go buy another 4kg of gummies and break them down to 25 portions to bring my boxes to symmetry today… and double my daily gummy ration from 2 giants to 4 giants. Emboldened by the presence of shops along the Trail, I am at east with this allocation.

Meanwhile in the kitchen, the oven is ever occupied with the task of drying beans. Trivia fact the first: once hydrated beans subsequently cooked then dried retain their nutritional value and cook twice as fast in consequent cookings. Trivia fact the second: salt that soaking water – it keeps the skins from bursting. I’ve been working through a 5 pound bag of garbanzo beans this past week, and have just moved on to black turtle beans. I also have lentils and split peas on hand, which will not undergo this hydration/dehydration transformation – I don’t want to consider the sight of twice cooked split peas. The end game for the beans and legumes is to portion them into quart sized ZipLock bags of dinner grains – rice, millet, quinoa, polenta, couscous, pasta – for easy one pot meals. It’s a work in motion.

On the gear front, um… I had 13 yellow slips waiting for me at my post office when I returned to work this past Monday – poor infantryman/postal worker boy. At least none of it was as heavy as that 30 pound box of peanuts… or that 40 pound bag of Bob’s Red Mill grains… put simply, acquisition by post has been a most entertaining affair, but it is done; I’ve officially got everything I need to do everything I need to do.

Task remaining: build a pot stand for my alcohol stove. Shout out to Hobby Express – they ship to service members abroad fo’ free! And now I have a 3 feet of 3/16″ brass tubing to sheath my bicycle spoke apparatus. That’s this weekend’s craft project. Oh, and learn how to pitch the tarp that will serve in lieu of a tent; I’d rather allocate the 2 pound differential to food and water. Oh, and figure out where I want to send those 25 Priority Mail boxes. I’m kind of planning to bend my hike to my preparation, and where things don’t quite align, to pull out my credit card. If it’s not life, limb, or eyesight, it’s no worry.

And, of course, the obligatory training plan. My Withings watch tells me that I’ve been increasing my footsteps by as much as 33% each week over the past 4 weeks. I aim to walk an average of 18 miles a day, so I’ve been increasing my mileage towards that end. This lovely little town of mine has hills , and I’ve explored a good many of them. There’s a 77km stretch of trail that leads from the Mariahilfberg atop my town all the way to the Czech border. I figure I could do it in a day, carrying only food and water. Loc isn’t so keen on the idea. We’ll find compromise… or I’ll just do it, then call him for a ride.

Sounds like a plan.

 

 

A Brief Life Update

Hello, gentle people.

It’s been a day or two since I’ve written – let’s just say that my attention was focused elsewhere. That being said, the primary object of my attention has a full time job and I am on leave and soon to be (quite happily) unemployed and on the Trail. Alas, it’s snowing, so I am not outside playing with my ultra lightweight hiking gear – Bavaria never ceases to astound.

In case the news missed you, Loc and I married one another in a simple ceremony in Copenhagen on February 29, 2016. The venue was the Marriage Hall of the Copenhagen City Hall, and the ritual in its entirety took a brief but beautiful four minutes. I could not have asked for a more perfect way to conduct such a significant ceremony – without pomp, without circumstance, without pretense, but rich with meaning.

After introducing himself and confirming our identities, the official who performed our marriage gave this short but eloquent speech:

“A wedding is a joyful occasion, but it also applies deep commitment. Marriage is one of the most important events in a person’s life; it gives you rights, but also responsibilities, and it assumes a desire to live with each other in mutual love, helpfulness, and tolerance. Marriage is perhaps the greatest and most challenging adventure of human relationships. No ceremony can create your marriage; only you can do that through love, patience, and dedication; through talking, listening, helping, supporting, and believing in each other; and through tenderness and light.

I hope that your marriage will be harmonious and meaningful and that you will protect everything that makes your relationship so special that you have decided to get married.”

I fully intent to print, frame, and prominently display that short speech – it speaks volumes in its brevity.

There were twelve couples waiting to marry after us, but we did not feel harried. Why we were the first couple to wed is beyond me – we registered just in advance of the six week advance notification. By any measure, we were given a beautiful venue to celebrate the occasion in the wedding hall proper after the ceremony. In attendance were a crew of our friends from our community here in Germany, and my parents and youngest brother all the way from Vermont. It was an honor to have so many people converge on such short notice, and especially to have the love and support of my parents, who went so far as to apply for passports and travel abroad for the first time since the summer of 2001 to be there.

I will just say, to go from growing up in a religion that tells me that an essential element of my nature is morally wrong to having my family at my side at such a significant life event speaks volumes to the power of love over dogma – I am most richly blessed.

When I wrote about Loc in October, we had already moved in together. We both had plans through Thanksgiving, and I through Christmas, and we agreed to keep those plans as a show of mutual respect for our distinct but merging lives. If I had any doubt in my mind that he was the one for me, I lost it all when I came back from my trip to Rome to find my keyboard and all of my music books set up in the corner of his living room. When I bought that setup at West Point, it came in four large boxes; I went so far as to buy my first car to accommodate the length of my keyboard. I specifically chose a first floor apartment for ease of transporting the instrument; he hauled it across town and up three flights of stairs. It was an act of vulnerability, and it endeared him inalienably to me.

Getting married so soon after meeting was not stressful; it just felt right. It was the natural progression of something that both of us had held out for a long time to find. We began discussing rings after Thanksgiving, and I purchased them while at home for Christmas. Their interior is lined with rosewood, and their exterior is titanium, the joining of art and science, nature and industry. They symbolize the merging of our two lives, just as much as an anniversary that only occurs every four years expresses a love that transcends time… and the boundary pushing that feeds both our souls.

I tend not to be so serious in the presence of my boo – we both find in one another a wellspring of youth, goofiness, and joy. Not a day passes that we don’t exchange a goofy kiss or a goofy smile. Not one incident in our ten day road trip through the Balkans led either of us to sour the day by a loss of composure (much opportunity when you have no data and your GPS is out of date). I’d say we’re already quite practiced in the patience and tolerance departments – it helps that he finds a way to pack his own purchases on the road, and I pay for my speeding tickets. Note – don’t speed in France; while going 20km over in Germany will result in a 20 euro fine, going 10km over in France will result in a 45 euro fine. On the bright side, France has an app that allows you to pay through your phone! Germany likes to linger in the dark ages of digital communication – I imagine at least part of it has to do with the reverence Germans have for nature, but I can’t confirm.

Fortunately, we have a lifetime to ascertain the answer.

Here’s to sharing it with you, boo.

The Sad Lad Shave

Every morning, I shave, just like every other sad lad in the Army. But unlike every other sad lad in the Army, I shave with a safety razor.

Don’t let the name fool you. A safety razor is a hammer head device with two incredibly sharp blades at either end, and if you’re not extremely attentive, you’re bound to nick your skin – if not outright slice it. It so happens that this very fact is a compelling one in my decision to shave as I do. I enjoy a good challenge.

Look at them teeth!

Look at them teeth!

I am a morning person, one of those “the sun’s awake, so I’m awake!” kind of people (no, this is not a veiled Frozen reference). Granted, in Bavaria this time of year, there isn’t much sun to be had, but I’m still up and at ’em with the first peal of my alarm (we won’t see the sun again until March, but after three iterations of six months of total darkness, I’ve got it figured out). I’m also the kind of guy who likes to set just one alarm for the latest moment possible to facilitate my timely arrival to the workplace – a blade runner of sorts, if you please. I haven’t been late to work in years, but sometimes (increasingly), I have to change from my street clothes into uniform with a quickness before the morning formation. I keep my two worlds separate, and it’s worth the price of a few minutes more at work. Plus, it’s another thrill. I thrive on cheap thrills.

Being a morning person, however, does not guarantee a smooth shave. A smooth shave is the product of a myriad of factors – the brush, the soap, the steady hand – but most important is a steady and attentive mind. This mind likes to wander. Last Friday, I found myself thinking about one of my Troops driving back from a training mission, but only after I sliced a very fine line the length of a blade into my neck – vertical. This past Monday, I nicked a fine line about a centimeter in length just above my cheek bone – horizontal; I was thinking about another Troop’s participation in an international soldiering competition that morning. I am responsible for resourcing five Troops on a daily basis, both planner and executor; these Troops are ever on my mind. And, well, the styptic pencil was created for just such circumstances. Men, If you don’t own one, I highly recommend them. I definitely own three.

After an epic outward journey, how could I not think of these guys on their return?

After an epic outward journey, how could I not think of these guys on their return?

My soldiers and peers alike poke fun at me for my practice – attacked by a feral cat again? And I’ll joke along with them, silently swearing to outdo myself tomorrow, and vocally endeavoring to sell them on the merits of my chosen shave (it is one of the closest shaves you can get, and you get to use a shave brush for something other than cleaning the star chamber of your rifle!). It’s almost cyclical at this point. We’re ramping up for a major movement (my bread and butter) and I’m starting to slide back into my multitasking mindset, so I’m not surprised. I could be an emergency dispatcher in L.A., and I could wet shave, but I don’t think I’d be wise to attempt both enterprises together… not until I master the ability to dwell in the present moment. This environment I’m in provides the perfect training grounds.

IMG_0362

Wares of the Wet Shave… Zen.

This pursuit of the present moment is precisely why I apply a razor sharp blade to my face five minutes after I stir from my slumbers. It’s why I haven’t bought a disposable razor in years – well, that, and safety razor blades are about 8000% less expensive than Gillette Fusion blades, and they last longer too. It’s also a personal challenge to shake myself awake, without the aid of stimulants of any kind. It’s a personal challenge to still my restless mind – a goal I generally only attain while running or playing the piano. To initiate either of these exercises is to step onto a well-trod path, but one which demands an active mind rather than allowing a passive mind: they are meditative turns inward. This is the state I seek to achieve with my morning shaving ritual – active mind, focused mind. It’s also a state I seek to achieve in my writing, surrounded as I am by a myriad of distractions of my own devise. The end game is to apply this mindfulness meditation to everyday acts, every day.

This.

I won’t always be a soldier, and for that, I am infinitely grateful – but I will always carry with me the signs and symptoms of a youth spent soldiering, the most salient of them being a magnification of my natural proclivity for extremes. I’m working on reining it in, or at least on planning wisely with appropriate gear for the enterprise. I must say though, I do enjoy my scars, scattered across my face and body by a young adulthood spent pursuing greater and greater heights and depths. They’re proof that I’ve tried to outperform myself – and the day I stop doing that is the day I start withering away.

Let that day never come.

James

PS: I didn’t cut myself today!

A Month of Monumental Change

It is Sunday, October 18, 2015.

In the past month, I have run a marathon; met a boy; fallen in love; moved in with said boy; flipped my bike without a helmet; sought medical counsel for the aftermath of the aforementioned; reconnected with my musical roots; run a second marathon; been notified of my second non-promotion; spent four days in Rome; sought medical counsel for the aftermath of Marathon 2.0; submitted my formal resignation from the Army; bought Christmas airfare to see my family reunited for the first time in three years; planned a New Year’s trip to Paris; and spent one weekend road tripping through bucolic Bavaria with my boy, with whom I would be perfectly content to spend the rest of my days.

In short, it’s been a wild ride, and I’ve learned a thing or two in the process.

First, back-to-back marathons, when your goal is to break a record (and mine was to qualify for Boston, coming out of my first one with a 3:11:27 – just had to shave a few seconds off of each mile), are really not good for you. Professionals recommend running two such marathons in one year, or three in two years. And there are detailed training plans at my fingertips too! Two weeks is actually the minimum threshold your body needs to recover from a marathon before starting another training cycle, not the refractory period between two of them. Turns out that running a marathon is actually quite traumatic to one’s body, and the symptoms may or may not surface. That being said, your body is capable of so much more than you can possibly know without pushing it to and beyond its limits. And I will run another marathon in the spring. I’ll break 3:00:00 too.

Second, when it comes to the outside world, there’s a lot to be said for human kindness, but it pays to be self-reliant. The good folks who orchestrated the Freundschaftsmarathon in my hometown very thoughtfully placed energy gels at intervals along the entire length of the course. The good folks who orchestrated the Cologne Marathon two weeks later did not… but I did not find that out until I was well committed to the race, my one energy gel consumed, and struggling to run more than 400 meters in a stretch. And let me tell you, the crowd support in that race was amazing. So many people reached out to me, shook my hand, gave me a high five, and gave me words of encouragement… but they didn’t have the energy gels my body craved. I eked out a 3:17:20 and emerged more wounded in pride than anything else- but I learned a lot from veteran marathoners from mere observation, and I have a mind to retain what I learned. Next time, I’ll be prepared.

Third, I’ve learned the importance of taking recovery seriously. Emerging from my second marathon, I had blood blisters on two toes, a nail I felt sure I’d lose, a painful right instep, a painful right hip flexor, and a left knee with which the experience of descending stairs felt a bit like wrapping a tendon ever tighter around an axis… and in the midst of that pain, I learned to appreciate elevators and escalators, rather than to look upon them with disdain. I also learned how to listen to my body – long distance runners run with the pain, not to drown it out (that means no headphones). Five days after my second marathon, I was touring the Vatican, a lifelong aspiration. Three hours in, standing in St. Paul’s Basilica, my only thought was of alleviating the pain wracking my body. I found a Thai massage parlor on Google inside the Basilica, and was at an appointment within the hour. I took naps every day of that trip. I’ve officially hit the two-week mark, and I am still adjusting to my newfound mortality. Lots of stretching, biking, and this sweet exercise called the clamshell. My attitude towards the elliptical has slid from disdain to tentatively inquisitive too. It would seem that injury, like travel, is detrimental to prejudice.

Ahm nom nom

Ahm nom nom

Fourth, helmets are more than just fashion accessories. And I have guardian angels. I flipped my brand new bike on a curb 600 meters away from my house… and miraculously landed on my right hand and left collarbone and side, completely avoiding trauma to my head. In a bit of a daze, I picked myself up, dusted myself off, hopped back on my bike, and rode, blood dripping down my right hand, to my boy’s house. Though I had a key, I was in too poor a condition to use it, so I rang the doorbell and stood there cradling my damaged hand in my whole one, until he answered and whisked me to the bathroom to put me back together. It’s probably for the best that the guy I love also happens to be a medical professional. After I bend my bike back into shape, I may procure a helmet. I do quite like my brain.

Synergy!

Synergy!

Fifth, I know what lies beyond the Appalachian Trail. I’m going to move to wherever the Army sends my boy (we’re jockeying for JBLM), and once there, I’m going to set up shop. I am going full tilt into the humanities. I like self-actualized people, and I like being the spark that gets them going. I want to work in youth advocacy, for every boy who’s ever felt like putting a gun to his head because he doesn’t belong, for every kid who’s never had a parent give him the affirmation that he needs to succeed. And I’m going to work my ass off to share the beauty and wonder of this magnificent world with all who will listen… and in doing so, also do my bit to contribute to a conscientious and principled citizenry. My long game is to go into classroom education, but I’m in no hurry to get there. When the time feels right, I’ll do it. One thing’s for sure: I’m absolutely done pursuing another man’s agenda. Life is just too short to waste it chasing money in hopes of a more stable future. Just live.

Sixth, that inspirational quote about our deepest fear being that we are powerful beyond measure? It’s true. Every word.

Challenge Accepted

Challenge Accepted

Seventh, no man is an island… and life is so much richer when it’s shared with somebody you love. Three months ago in a Buddhist monastery, I took an oath to limit my sexual relationships to those made known to my family and friends – a personal challenge, as I negotiated through a pivotal point in my life that led me to embrace myself fully. One month ago, I met a boy whose companionship so fills me with joy that I wanted to shout it from the rooftops – so I did. I’ve never felt more unified in purpose, more enlivened, more sure that who I am with is right for me. I have a stable pier upon which to moor my errant soul in the stormy seas of life. I have a life partner who is kind and strong and good, who anticipates my needs and gives license to my every aspiration. He even takes back seat when I sit down to my keyboard, which he so graciously moved to our common home when I was in Rome – but he will tell me when it’s time to turn in, lest I bust my Army bedtime. And he’s great at all the things that lovers do. His name is Loc Dang, and I love him to pieces.

My beau - he's a keeper!

My beau – he’s a keeper!

Which leads my eighth life lesson: the richness of life is reserved for those who are open to new experiences in both heart and mind. I’m a bit of a new age idealist – I keep the Holstee Manifesto on my bedroom wall, and I once memorized the Desiderata of Happiness – and I totally believe that adage about finding the love of your life not in looking for him or her, but in doing what you love. I did, and I couldn’t be happier.

Oh, and asserting my own will to define my future for the first time since I chose my duty station as a 22 year old in college was way awesome. Cut the umbilical cord, burn the ships on the shore, whatever: come 1 May 2016, I can doff the damn uniform and speak my conscience without reserve. I’m happily investing the time that remains into getting to know my partner and reviving my passions, but when the hourglass runs its course, I’ll be ready.

FREEEEEEDOMMMM

FREEEEEEDOMMMM

The Instructive Power of Pain

Of late, I am increasingly grateful for pain.

For the first twenty-six years of my life, I had not the remotest interest in running a marathon. A half marathon, sure – I used to run that distance along the Hudson River on Sunday mornings in the spring and fall; I’d be hard pressed to identify a greater pleasure in my time at West Point – but a marathon? Madness.

Almost imperceptibly this summer, that mentality shifted. Perhaps it was my triumph over the Zugspitze on the first of August – with a partner I met twelve hours before our attempt, no less. Perhaps it was my triumph over the Nordkette, the mountain range that had unveiled my inexperience the summer previous, two weeks later. Perhaps it was a combination of the two – I was on top of the world, both literally and figuratively, and I felt grand. So when I saw an advertisement for the Freundschaftmarathon, a trail marathon whose course follows the undulating terrain of my immediate vicinity from Amberg, my hometown, to Weiden in the ancient volcanic northland. The terrain map looked absolutely delicious.

Tell me that ain't tasty

Tell me that ain’t tasty

Accordingly, I roped in my running buddy Seth, and the two of us set out to train for that marathon some six weeks hence. He had run the original marathon, so I figured he was up to snuff on the requisite training. We set into a rhythm of his design. On Mondays, we’d run six miles. On Tuesdays, we’d run eight miles. On Wednesdays, we would take a recovery day to conduct our unit-imposed Wednesday walk. On Thursdays, the highlight of my week, we would do our long runs. In six successive weeks, we ran a 10, a 12, a 14, a 16, and this past week, and 18 miler. Two days after I ran the 14 miler, I summited the Zugspitze, spent the night on the peak, and ran down the south face into the Eibsee – literally, ran. I had DOMS, Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, until the morning of my 16 miler, but I felt grand all the same.

I didn’t realize quite how much these had come to matter to me until that 16 miler, when a ride request from my buddy, road work, and a failure to use Google Maps before I left my house very nearly cost me my run. Throughout that debacle of a drive, I was ever so glad for the years of practice I’ve put into checking my impulses and remaining in control under duress; my friendship with my buddy Mike is worth far more to me than displacing my frustration to blow off steam. It was with incredible relief that I made enough of a time hack to log those miles – there was to be no make up on Friday, as I was to fly to Paris that very evening.

That run was our slowest run in weeks. We had been averaging a 7:15/mile pace on our previous runs. On this run, we averaged a 7:23/mile pace. The day before, Seth had played Gator Ball (a combination of soccer and football for the athletically inept) at the behest of his buddy, who had been challenged to a game by another unit – pride was on the line, and we are a proud people. I also happen to be fully aware of my inability in the realm of ball sports, so I opted out of the enterprise. Beyond the game, he had also biked to and from work that week, a one way trip of 15 miles, largely uphill. Suffice it to say, he was hurting pretty badly before, during, and after that run. We agreed to give our legs the long weekend to recover.

I spent that long weekend in Paris. As I could wax poetic on the many sub-subjects that Paris provided me then, I shall consider it sufficient to say that I left fulfilled, albeit slightly poorer. Maybe moderately poorer. But it was worth it.

It was 2300 on Monday night before my buddy Brad and I reached his house and began necessary nighttime rituals before I crashed, fully clothed, on his guest bed. Wake up was a scant six hours hence (this body prefers eight, but can sustain my heightened tempo at seven per night sans caffeine – good sleep is a pillar of good fitness!).

On Tuesday, our first run back, that long weekend reaped dividends. We clocked an average pace of 7:09/mile, dramatically overshooting our goal of a conservative 7:30, but we both felt great, so we pressed on. I used to evaluate my exertion level based on my ability to speak. I’ve recently learned that that is a terribly inaccurate measure, as I rarely now exert myself beyond a comfortable talking pace, and I am definitely not slacking. Six miles down and a thorough post-run stretch routine, all was well!

On Wednesday, I dutifully donned my combat boots and fell into my line of fellow officers promptly at 0625. The cannons went off at 0630, a song ensued (as with every morning, a tuneless song with schizophrenic tendencies), announcements followed, and then I marched back up to my office to change into running shoes. I then joined Seth for a lift at the gym. Believe it or not, as I’ve recently had stressed by my doctor in absentia, Dr. Jordan Metzl, total body fitness is vital to injury prevention in long distance runners – he’s even gone so far as to say that he’d rather I be strong than flexible. As I do fully intend to be a long distance runner for a lifetime, I’ll bend to that axiom. So, weight lifting twice a week it is. He also has a few things in his book about, say, a proper training plan for a marathon, but I’ve sustained a high level of fitness for the past eight years, so I’ve chosen to take that guidance as mere guidance, not gospel. Not this year, at least.

The Runner's Bible

My Runner’s Reference Guide

On Thursday, we ran our 18 miler. I woke up at 0430 and smiled, knowing that out at the airfield, hundreds of soldiers were huddled in the cold awaiting their chance to take their Expert Infantryman Badge (EIB) PT Test; their work call was at 0300. Talk about an inefficient system. I dodged this bullet by expressing my extreme disinterest in competing for a badge that means nothing to one with the exit door in the foreground. Anyway, Seth had devised a route that roughly mimicked the terrain of our marathon – namely, a really big hill in the final stretch. We ran from our office building in Vilseck to his house in Netzaberg, with a loop on post factored in to warm up before hitting the trail and bump up our mileage to the desired 18. Mile 16 was that really big hill. By this point, I was a good bit ahead of my comrade – staying with anybody for 16 miles is a daunting task – and feeling great. I ran straight up that really big hill, slowing relatively little. I then waited for him at the crest, and we finished the run more or less together. A good stretch, a pre-positioned Carnation Instant Breakfast, and a banana later, we were in his car en route back to work to start the day.

I got me my CIB, don't need no EIB!

I got me my CIB, don’t need no EIB!

I felt fine all day long. Euphoric, even. I have a few new NCOs in the office, and one of them is most amused at the level of energy that I sustain throughout the workday. I think it kind of annoys one of the others, but hell – be a dynamo of irrepressible joy, right? That mantra got me through Ragnar Skul (long U), so I figure it’s pretty durable. It’s done me well for the entirety of my Army saga, actually – it’s got more mileage than my running shoes, and it’ll definitely outlast those. I’ll keep that spirit alive until it’s ripped from my chest. Anyway, I stretched before I went to bed in hopes of waking up happy.

Instead, I woke up in vivifying agony. I was alive, alright – no need for Johnny Cash or his needle to confirm that one.

My right ankle ached right where the Achilles tendon meets the bone. I figured it might be a sprain, but I couldn’t trace it back to any point along my run, except for that little bit of running along the slope of a ditch to dodge a mother and child on their way to school. Stretching was my remedy here.

My calves, especially my left, radiated a deep, dull ache – insistent, the sign of a Grade 1 Strain (thanks, Dr. Metzl). The recommended course of action on that injury is to suspend all lower body exercise until the pain went away completely. Not exactly feasible with a marathon, the sole object of my ambition for the past six weeks, ten days away. This, accordingly, was somewhat of a mood-mellowing message.

Meditate on that one!

No candy cane dreams here!

My knees were so insistently painful that I could not walk up or down a set of stairs without very deliberate placement of my feet and a lot of sidestepping. My little hypochondriac’s handbook told me that IT band problems only manifest themselves during a run, so that diagnosis didn’t fit the bill. The only other option seemed to be a lateral meniscal tear, which is far more debilitating than tightness in the IT band, and far less common than an anterior meniscal tear – therefore, in addition to being slightly concerning, quite confusing. Reading about the advisability of surgery in the advent of such a tear was a tantalizing treat, that’s for sure.

The sum of all of these things led to severe self-doubt when it came to thoughts about my upcoming marathon. That morning, I dedicated my exercise hour to recovery. I biked for a few minutes to warm up my muscles, then began a static stretch sequence. I linked in with two of my fellow officers, and we did a push-up workout as well as a set of Tabata sit-ups before we initiated a second stretch sequence with a muscle roller. Dr. Metzl insists that the roller is an essential piece of recovery equipment for the running man, but warned that initial uses of it to loosen the IT Band would be quite painful. He was true to his word, alright, but I slogged through my iterations with dogged determination.

I left work that afternoon and drove to Grafenwoehr, land of the local big PX, to look for a roller at the suggestion of a co-worker. I did not find one, but did find a set of resistance bands. I acquired them, then skulked on home in sullied defeat. I spent the afternoon reading Running Strong, planning a trip to Regensburg, and napping. I did put a backstop on my napping by laying plans with friends for a dinner in town at 2000. I walked the two kilometers to the restaurant for some mild muscular exertion.

Following my dinner, a comedic affair, I walked home, happy and sore. My buddy Nate had to rise early for EIB training, and my buddy Aaron and his friend Ozzy had to catch an early morning train to Munich for a game. As the rest of my friends were either doing EIB, away on a training exercise, or getting cut open, I felt quite content to call it an early night. After a thorough stretch, I curled up with Running Strong and fell asleep around 2200. I had in mind to actually do yoga, that long considered but rarely practiced healing art, in the morning.

Waking at 0600, I felt oddly elated. So. Much. Energy! I cleaned pretty damn near my whole house, started laundry, and did a 30-minute yoga routine I found on the YouTube before 0900. It was pretty spiffy – I began totally tight and ended fairly limber. The yoga instructor assumed that I had a substantive knowledge base in the field, which is patently false, but I was able to follow along enough that it felt a worthwhile engagement of my physical faculties that left my dignity intact. Yay in home exercise.

Oscillating between modes of transportation, I opted to drive to the sports store. I made it there around 1115 – and found myself at a mall. In typical male fashion, very quickly found what I was looking for, then, in a spirit of unorthodoxy, lingered a bit longer to peruse the shop. I walked away with a roller, a roll-out ball, and two sweet neon running shirts for a song. I grabbed a sandwich at the deli downstairs, then pondered what to do with the rest of my day.

Victory!

Victory!

I ended up driving into downtown Regensburg with no great purpose in mind. I opted to travel sans GPS, and intuited my way into a little corner of the city that seemed rather refined. I parked at 1258 and bought my two-hour parking ticket, that being my imposed upper limit. I began walking and quickly realized that I was surrounded by Thai massage parlors advertising an hour for 30 Euro. At 1310, I walked into one of those parlors and asked for a massage. By 1318, my massage had begun. Every single muscle sighed in contentment as long held tensions were teased out. I couldn’t have spent a better 30 Euro. I walked around the city a bit, realized that I had run out of all objectives save a grocery run, and headed to my car to begin my journey home.

Inspired, I stopped at the Kaufland a few kilometers from my house. Generally, I’m a simple Netto guy – there is one about 500 meters from my house, and I can walk there after work. Today, however, I had grander ambitions. I wanted to explore the world beyond my front door. In doing so, I discovered WHOLE CHOCOLATE MILK! Talk about a perfect day. I must have been grinning like an idiot, but I felt flat out euphoric. This was a wistful dream realized. No longer must I subject myself to that shoddy skim substitute, or those chocolate powders that leave clumps at the bottom of my glass. Nay, for today, I had discovered the luscious, smooth, creamy richness of whole chocolate milk. I could have died happy.

Ecstasy

Unadulterated Ecstasy

Thus ends my narrative tale. Pain is instructive. I have been reading my little runner’s Bible daily. I’ve been learning yoga, and rolling out my muscles daily too. I’m learning both techniques and terminology. I even went on a furtive run this morning, possibility of calf strains and all. I tried to keep it to an eight minute pace without a watch. and I think I did okay. I didn’t kill my NCO, if that’s any measure. Tonight, I’ll roll out my muscles again, and tomorrow, I’ll do a total body workout, then roll out my muscles. The remainder of the week will be calm.

And on Sunday, I’m running that marathon, hills and all.

I Bought A Bike Today

Today, I woke up with intention – I want to buy a bicycle.

I’ve had this idea in mind for quite some time. Every day, I drive past a bike shop on my way to and from work, a white building with bright red neon lighting advertising its wares right on the corner of the old town and the ramp to the highway. How can such a building escape one’s attention? It’s hardly subliminal marketing.

Imagine this emblazoned on a building

Imagine this emblazoned on a building filled with and surrounded by bikes

Further, living where I do, it’s a solid two kilometer walk to the center of the Aldstadt, the historic center of Amberg, if I want to join my friends for dinner or a drink. I don’t mind this walk, as it’s a great time to practice walking meditation, let my mind unwind, or listen to a podcast, but it does require that I factor an extra 20 minutes (30 if I don’t feel like breaking a sweat) into my travel time each way. I have a budding reluctance to drive my car such a short distance when I can travel the same distance cleaner by taking an alternative form of transportation. Plus, there’s a really awesome hill that I can get some sweet air on as I travel into town on two wheels.

Screen Shot 2015-07-25 at 4.47.21 PM

The Map in all of its Illustrative Glory

That penultimate sentence – the bit about a budding reluctance – that’s really why I sought a bicycle. If I must drive, I’ll drive. But for anything I do around my town, I simply don’t need a car. Consider it a conscious step toward reducing my impact on the environment. Bavaria is one of the most beautiful places on earth – its forests are lush and green, its pastoral landscapes dotted with cattle, sheep, or horses, its cities both surrounded by and filled with gardens and greenery. The people here revere nature. I revere nature. It is our collective treasure, and what what we do to it in our lifetime is the inheritance that we pass off to our children. I’d prefer that that be a gift, that we be able to instill in our children an equally rich appreciation for nature and the gifts she so continually bestows upon us, whether or not we merit them.

The Heart of Old Town Amberg

The Heart of Old Town Amberg

Anyway, I woke up at 0730 – about normal for a Saturday – and had a vision of a bicycle in that shop on my mind. So, I went online to search for its hours. In doing so, I learned that Germans hold the place in low regard. Such abysmal customer service! And, well, it’s a shop that sells all sorts of vehicles with two wheels, not a specialty bike shop. So I queried further. In doing so, I discovered a specialty bike shop just one kilometer from my house! Perks of living beyond the Ring. I learned that it is open from 0900-1230, so I ate a breakfast of sliced apples, bread, and cheese (Brie!), dressed, and stepped off a bit before 0900.

I arrived fifteen minutes later to find the place open and inviting. I went inside, gave my best “Sprechen-Sie Englisch?”, was greeted warmly in English, and invited to view the shop’s bicycles. The sales rep and I honed in on one bicycle pretty quickly – size and simplicity, check! It helped that it’s the end of the season (news to me) and there was only one bicycle in my price bracket (actually, quite below it) on the floor. It’s a beauty, a sleek black and chrome thing with all of the trappings of German law – a powerful little bell, and a mechanically powered headlamp mounted over the front wheel. It also has a saddle on the back wheel for whatever saddlebag or basket I may eventually acquire! And it has 21 speeds. Super spiffy.

I got to take said bicycle, Victoria emblazoned on the fork and frame (victory!), on a test ride. It was exhilarating. A little bit of exertion, a little bit of speed, a little bit of playing with uneven terrain and the (quite effective) shocks. For an A to B bike, it performed exactly as I hoped. So, with elation, I wheeled on back to the bike shop, and initiated the purchase. Before I could ask if they accepted VAT (Value Added Tax, a 19% sales tax on all purchases in Germany) forms (these exempt the bearer of the aforementioned tax), the attendant asked me if I had a VAT form. Win! I produced the form, and we prepared all of the necessary paperwork – my bike sitting right outside the shop window, waiting. When the time to pay came, I produced a credit card with the required chip, and was told that they only accept cash. So I asked to take my bicycle, and I rode over to the bank on my street. Five minutes later, I was back at the shop, cash in hand. The attendant counted out the money, we signed the receipt, and the purchase was final! I even have a 10 year service guarantee at my little neighborhood bike shop.

Victoria!

Victoria! Note the light and the bell. Ding!

I rode away victorious at 0930, full of life and ready to start my day. And with just me, my ultralight little red backpack, and my new bicycle, it’s been grand.

Peace, people.

James

In Which I Actually Write About Plum Village

Resonance is a driving concept in my life.

I believe that, when we’ve finally figured out why we’ve been put on this earth, resonance is the byproduct. The pursuit thereof is what brought me to blogging. It’s the whole “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it, because what the world needs is people who have come alive” thing. The inverse is Thoreau’s “The mass of men lead lives of silent desperation.” I refuse to lead a life of silent desperation. I refuse to lead a life of vocal desperation. My decision to go to West Point as a 16-year-old boy was one that resonated within me at the time. The subsequent disillusionment, well, I believe that’s called becoming an adult. And as a mentor tells me every time I pick up the poem that serves as my north star, the most important of all virtues is the courage to stay true to one’s childhood dreams – to stay open to the wonders of life. I believe that’s called becoming a man. The poem is in French, but that’s the gist of (the end of) it. In that spirit,, I’ve been fighting within the confines of my chosen societal prison to stay true to my deepest yearnings. Thank you, West Point French class.

Isabelle’s description of Plum Village in that Anglican church led to a resonating ‘yes’ in my soul. Yes, yes, yes. This is what I want. This is what I need, here and now. This is what I have been looking for. So I did some preliminary research, which is to say, I found dates that nested with my block leave period, and a week later, I submitted my request to stay a week in July. Planning too much spoils the joy of discovery; as such, I don’t often bother. A place to stay and a way to get there are about all I need. I think that, after I leave the Army, I might scrap even those. As Hellen Keller said, life is either a daring adventure or it is nothing. I like that. Anyway, I then started discussing my plan to my coworkers, all of whom thought I was nuts. Guilty as charged – I see no merit in being strictly rational – but what I do with my personal time is my own business, thank you very much. This has been a slow lesson in coming for my boss, who has had to bend his expectations vis-a-vis the Army and me. To his credit, he’s gotten there.

I didn’t read any of Thich Nhat Hanh’s 100+ publications before I showed up at Plum Village, nor did I watch any of his Dharma talks or interviews (click this one) on YouTube. This made me a minority of one among my peers, who were largely veterans of Plum Village or at least engaged in Sanghas in their home communities (more on that later). I was also the only infantry officer seeking refuge in a Buddhist monastery, so whatever. My first night there, I befriended two 30-year veterans of the Liberian Army. And we Americans think we have it tough. I won’t argue that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan haven’t left a trail of broken bodies and souls in their wake, but the atrocities there and the atrocities in Liberia are of an entirely different caliber. Let’s just say that, historically, Liberia is not the most peaceful place on the planet. These guys, seeking for relief from the PTSD they suffered for the things they’d seen and done, had come to Buddhism to be healed. They had also sworn the remainder of their lives to rebuilding a community ravaged by a generation of war. Swords to plowshares – such a powerfully poignant image in my mind. Those poppies up there are not incidental.

What I did do, was read all of the coordinating instructions and follow the packing list to a T. Ask me if I do that for the Army. The answer is no, because packing lists are produced as an afterthought by tired NCOs who largely never actually go to the field. I don’t know why I bothered following a monastic packing list. In real terms, it meant that I had four pairs of shoes and enough clothes to necessitate rolling luggage, a personal symbol of shame. I could wax poetic on this subject. I’ll sum it up in one word: cobblestones. Note also, when my grandfather died last fall and I flew to America for a 10 day stay and his funeral, I rolled up my suit and stuffed it in a backpack. And America doesn’t have cobblestones.

I soon learned that, of all those four pairs of shoes on the packing list, I needed but one, and they didn’t have laces. I didn’t need all of those clothing items that extended beyond my elbows and knees, as that rule didn’t seem to be terribly significant. In fact, none of the rules save ‘respect the sound of the bell’ carried much weight. Buddhists are not like soldiers (and thank God for that). I spent my week in my Arc’teryx parachute pants (super lightweight, and no worries about sunburn!), my Merrill slip-on shoes (I never intended to own these, but The Clymb sent them to me in Afghanistan in lieu of a pair of running shoes I had ordered – and I love them), and whatever shirt fit my fancy. Simplicity. That’s another Buddhist precept. The monks own three brown robes, a bowl, and a set of chopsticks. That’s about it. And a hygiene kit. Gotta brush them teeth – and shave. In this way, they are like soldiers. Except a lot more benevolent. I had 12 days of facial hair by day 5 of my stay there, and nobody said a word for or against.

Anyway, the daily ritual worked loosely as follows:

0515: Wake up
0600: Guided meditation
0630: Mindful exercise (bamboo stick exercises)
0700: Breakfast
0900: Dharma talk, generally a lecture or panel
1100: Walking meditation
1200: Lunch
1500: Total relaxation
1600: Working meditation
1800: Dinner
2000: Dharma sharing
2200: Noble silence

On the evening of my arrival, I rode from the train station at Saint Foy Le Grand to Plum Village in an 8 passenger van with a French family and two American guys my age. This proved consequential because when registering for a group, I chose to be with my new friend Shivam. I didn’t know his name or much about him at that point, but we had ridden in together, and I knew that I wanted to be with somebody I (kind of) knew. So, I fell in line behind him at the registration hall and, when confronted with a choice of groups to join, I chose the one that he had signed up for for no other reason than he had signed up for it and I (kind of) knew him. And thus, I found myself a part of a profoundly interesting assortment of young men and women.

An aside to introduce the bell. Resonance is a central tenet of Buddhism too. The bell, accordingly, is a very potent symbol. Imprinted on one face of the great bell of Plum Village is this inscription, the wish of Thich Nhat Hanh: “Body and spirit in perfect harmony, I send you my heart with the sound of this bell. May all who hear me leave their worry and transcend all anxiety and pain. I hear, I hear. This marvelous sound brings me to my true home.”  Bells are treated with great respect. A bell is not simply struck; it’s first invited, then sounded. The rod used to generate the sound is thus called an inviter. An invitation is a half tone; the inviter touches the rim of the bell, but does not leave to allow for resonance. It is believed that the quality of the invitation affects the quality of the full sound. Following the invitation, the bell is brought to resonance. Reception of this resonance depends on how open an individual is to its sound. At a minimum, it is a call to peace, a signal to turn inward and focus on one’s breathing, thus returning to the here and now – therein lies happiness. This process is used to open and close all scheduled events, and is used periodically throughout the day. It is a wonderful reminder to dwell in the present. This concludes the aforementioned aside, now back to the program.

I wake up at 0515 on a normal Army day, so waking up at a monastery that early was no problem, save that I was living with 7 other men of varying ages, and the old men tended to beat me to the bathroom we all shared (They also snored and used blinding iPhone lights to probe the darkness – these both gave me ample opportunity to practice the tenet of non-judgment. Said Shakespeare, there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so. Reflect on that one). I did some morning calisthenics while I waited my turn – at least until we’d worked out a rhythm that was agreeable to the lot of us. Read: my two competitors very mindfully took two distinct courses of actions. One dropped out of the competition in favor of a late morning, and the other woke at 0500 to shower.

I generally made it to the meditation hall by 0545, walking mindfully (read: slowly) the whole way. I have always enjoyed the morning most, and it was a pleasure to see the sun rise each day. I’d sit on a cushion amid a coterie of other early morning risers and meditate in silence for 15 minutes until one of the monks began the guided meditation with the ritual of the bell. I loved those sessions – they are a great way to start the day, and taking that time to focus on your breathing rather than your smart phone is a great way to bring priorities into focus. There are different levels of meditation – 16, according to what I was taught, but four basic meditations. The first is to simply be aware of your breathing and observe your thoughts. The second is to focus strictly on your breathing, following your in breath and out breath through to completion. The third is to be cognizant of the body as you breathe. The fourth is to really listen to the body as you breathe. I got a lot out of practicing the first and second meditations during this time block. Total relaxation was the time to focus on the third and fourth.

Bamboo stick exercises followed the completion of morning meditation. We’d all file out of the hall, don our shoes, grab a bamboo rod, and walk over to a field to begin the sixteen (eight and eight) bamboo stick exercises. These are a collection of exercises aimed at harmonizing one’s breath with one’s body, and improving flexibility – a little bit like yoga. My favorite exercise from a comic’s standpoint is the one in which you hold the bamboo rod at one end and extend your arm straight out (it’s called the Magic Sword!). From this position, you are to rotate your wrist such that the bamboo rod passes over your head (you lean back as it approaches), then back to the starting position. The first 180 degrees are your in-breath; the second are your out-breath. I quickly learned that this is not as simple as I had assumed – the variety of sincerely wrong moves I observed made for a good chuckle. Faces in exertion are wonderfully expressive.

Breakfast followed at 0700. We’d all queue up in six lines and do our best to maintain noble silence (no talking!) through to the end of the meal. In extremis, monks would use the bell to bring us in line. Breakfast was comprised of oatmeal, nuts, raisins, seeds, fruits, soy milk, bread, rice cakes, and various spreads. It was conducted in silence, the idea being to eat mindfully, appreciating every bite. The dietary regimen at Plum Village is entirely vegan, by the way. As an active athlete with a ravenous metabolism, I took the opportunity to observe how my body adapted to both eating vegan (I was open but skeptic) and only eating three times a day (fortunately, I had stores of bread sticks and Nutella from my Normandy trip). My two concerns were pure caloric intake, and protein. Lots of flax seed powder, lots of sunflower seeds, no dairy. I do not understand why dairy is verboten at the monastery. I imagine it has something to do with the elimination of suffering, as is the primary goal of all things Buddhist, but the lack thereof at the monastery is a major reason I will never be a monk. Brie! Camembert! Roquefort! Comte! Parmesan! Pecorino! Manchebo! Mozzarella!  Man, I love cheese.

Following breakfast, we’d all do dishes – a process reminiscent of my Boy Scout days of yore. Wash, rinse, rinse, rinse, put in the racks for sanitization! Once past this hurdle, noble silence was officially lifted until after the last official function of the day, dharma sharing. The space between breakfast and the dharma talk at 0900 was one in which to greet friends, share tea with one another, prepare a picnic lunch, and tend to whatever personal affairs needed tending. This was always a diverse hour and a half for me. When I wasn’t engaged in a conversation of my own, I quite enjoyed observing others greet one another, or listening to one prodigy or another on the piano. The musical talent scattered around that camp was astounding.

Dharma talks began at 0900. These usually began with the monks and nuns of the three hamlets chanting a Buddhist chant. These usually lasted about 15 minutes, and many found them quite profound. I was personally much more blown away by a resident named Nigel who just so happened to have spent six years studying violin in a conservatory and gave up the performance life to intern at a monastery and grace people with his humble virtuosity at lunchtime. Bach, man. He’s just in my blood. Anyway, these dharma talks ranged in theme from an introduction of the camp and its principles, to an introduction of the Five Mindfulness Trainings, to a panel discussion thereof, to question and answer sessions. They were generally very informative, and totally unpretentious. I value that last bit a great deal. I don’t know if mentorship is a widespread phenomenon in society writ large. For one such as me in the ranks, it is decidedly not. Accordingly, the humble diffusion of knowledge gained through experience and introspection to an audience strikes me deeply.

Following the daily dharma talk, we’d again break until walking meditation. As the dharma talks generally ran for about two hours, this interval was not long. All would gather together to walk in a (mostly) silent procession through the woods, treading softly so as to bless the earth with each step. Many removed their shoes and walked barefoot on the good earth. I found myself drawn to the practice, and did so at times myself. It is a liberating thing, to walk barefoot through nature. I also find this practice of being mindful of my steps and their relation to the earth to be both visceral and deeply symbolic. Accordingly, I now choose footwear that allows me to really feel my connection with the earth – no more clunky hard soles that deny me that sensation. These walks generally ended in a beautiful wooded area where we would take our lunch in silence, or while being serenaded by a four-piece chamber orchestra in nature. Let me tell you, that’s a way cool experience. Bach’s Air on the G String. In a geometrically planted birch forest, the wind  blowing gently overhead. I swear, there is nothing like an audience caught up in the enjoyment of something beautiful. Music has such transcendent power.

Following lunch, we would walk back from our picnic spot for a bit of down time before the 1500 activity. Total relaxation meditation is just that. It’s pretty cool. A whole sea of people lay down on mats in the meditation hall and focus on their breathing. That simple act is likewise profound to me, coming from a culture which never surrenders its guard. At the appointed hour, a monk or nun would invite the bell (one does not ring a bell in Buddhism; one invites it to sound) and begin the meditation session. This involved a guided meditation focusing on one’s body, a series of positive affirmations, and quite often, a nap. A wonderful nap, I might add – I always awoke refreshed. Such wonderful people, those Buddhist monks and nuns. They always woke us up so gently, and always closed the session with two bows of recognition. In the first, we would would face each other, using the center line of the hall as the line of demarcation, and bow gently to acknowledge another’s soul. We were always encouraged to identify somebody we had not yet met for this exercise – an act reminiscent of the peace greeting of the Anglican Church.  At the next sound of the bell, we would turn towards the altar, and bow to the Buddha and our ancestors. To be is to inter-be, and our ancestors never really leave us. I am he and you are he and you are me and we are all together… the Beatles definitely studied some Buddhism.

The period between 1600-1800 was reserved for working meditation. Somehow, this fell off of the monastic to-do list later in the week, but when I did do it the first few days, my friend Shivam and I would walk down to the Happy Farm, an organic farm providing nearly all of the produce to Plum Village, and weed the lettuce patch. Grasses. It was a beastly task, but rewarding all the same. We were sworn to mindful silence here too, and this time spent working the earth was wonderful for contemplation and a sense of accomplishment. Periodically, one of the residents would sound the bell, at which we knew to stop activity and return our focus to our breathing. Breathing in, present moment. Breathing out, wonderful moment. Breathing in, I know that I am here and now. Breathing out, a smile spreads across my face. It’s a beautiful world.

The sun tested the mettle of my sunscreen, and not wanting to risk crisping, we would call retreat and return to camp around 1730. On the way out, I’d wash my hands and do a few sets of pull-ups on the opportunely placed pull-up bar. In doing so, I learned that my vegan diet had no adverse effects on my strength, at least in the short term. As is the nature of manhood, I also goaded a few guys into a bit of exercise themselves. A rising tide lifts all boats! Returning to the main camp, I would often find my friend Marc, an older French man, leading a musical group in song. I generally jumped in. Basses are always in short supply. More about Marc and his group later too. Some of my most wonderful moments happened amidst this crowd.

Dinner was eaten as a family in mindful silence. It would always begin after everybody had served up their meals from the dining hall and gathered in the circle of lawn chairs designated for my family of 18-36 year olds. We’d sit in silence with our food until all had gathered, after which the ritual of the bell would invite the day’s announcements to be given. Grace followed, in a variety of traditions – the only requirement to call oneself a Buddhist is to be alive, and the practices of other faiths are celebrated – then we would eat, mindfully. The celebration of global cultures at Plum Village was a reminder of our bonds of fraternity, rooted in our mutual humanity. Chewing every bite deliberately and feeling the texture of our food is a form of meditation too, and we learned about this at dinner, then practiced it at every meal. Taking time to enjoy every last bite is a powerful lesson in mindfulness. I highly recommend it.

Dharma sharing was undoubtedly my favorite organized event. This is the practice of sharing what’s on one’s mind with his spiritual family. It’s a lesson in vulnerability, love, and acceptance. It’s a reflection on the teachings of the day. It’s an invitation to share one’s personal inspirations, doubts, issues, and insecurities. Poems, prayers, and songs flowed hesitantly at first, then freely as we became comfortable with one another. Sometimes, people would speak of personal quandaries, only to find the answer to their question in the process. Sometimes, people would speak of ongoing struggles and ask for the experience of others. As one immersed in the stoic tradition of the Western man, it was amazing to me to speak openly with other men about their issues with their families. It was amazing to learn of the challenges that each of my brothers and sisters was facing, and witness their grace in their struggle. In dharma sharing, I found the yearning for a better world and the support structure to bring it into being that I believe should be a hallmark of every congregation. In dharma sharing, I found noble souls laid bare. In dharma sharing, I found gentle growth. In dharma sharing, I found family.

In dharma sharing, my mind often drifted to a stanza of the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, first introduced to me the year the towers fell:

O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born into eternal life.

Call me cheesy – I don’t care; St Francis is my home boy, and he encapsulated a beautiful ideal.

We would end the formalities of the day with the ritual of the bell, and an invitation to practice noble silence until after breakfast the following morning. Many would walk to witness the sun set from a particularly scenic hilltop.  Some would stay longer, watching the rise of the firmament and the gradual population of the night sky (Sky map is a way cool app!). I took part in each of these evenings of simple appreciation, relishing the childlike sense of wonder. (Google Vocal Point, get on Amazon, pull up the album Lead Thou Me On, listen to their 30 second free sample of All Creatures of our God and King, fall in love, then buy the song. Or just click here to skip straight to the good stuff. There is no good free recording on the Inter webs – I scoured for near an hour!)

Stop.

Breathe. Breathe deep.

Breathing in, I am aware of my heart.

Breathing out, I smile to my heart.

Dwelling in the present moment,

I know that it is a wonderful moment.

And when the morning light came streaming in, we’d get up and do it again, amen.

Here’s to savoring the present moment –

James