(Wishing I Could) Run Like a Kenyan

Kenyan RunKenyans are clearly the best distance runners on the planet. And I am clearly not. But I do love running, and I do love Kenyans, and if flights cooperate as planned I will be in Nairobi trying to figure out a way to go for a run when this update posts on Monday.

When I first visited Kenya two years ago, my friends, Dusty and Cecily, got up early with me one morning to go for a run with Paul, a wonderful young man and ultra-talented runner (pictured above). He took it easy on me, which provided the unforgettable experience of matching a Kenyan runner stride for stride, but when we approached the home stretch on a short run in the tiny village of Kamulu he challenged me to turn up the speed. Unfortunately, my speed was already turned up, so I told him to go for it. He did and left me smiling in the dust.

My wife and I decided on that trip that we would return and targeted two summers down the road. We are fortunate that our plan came to fruition in a church-related trip with six other good friends. So the blog will be on hiatus for a couple of weeks as we spend time in Nairobi and on safari—and if God keeps smiling on me, as I go for another run in this special place.  Stay tuned.

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Surprised by Nostalgia

Front BeachI was born and raised in Arkansas. I love Arkansas. Now I live in California. And I love California. But recently I was reminded that a significant part of my heart remains in Mississippi.

We lived in Mississippi for about ten years and then moved to California about ten years ago. When we moved I expected to visit Mississippi from time to time, but somehow that had not happened in nine years until an unexpected invitation to officiate a funeral for a sweet friend arrived a couple of weeks ago. After a crazy couple of days of rearranging plans, I woke up to discover that I had been blasted into the past. I was unprepared.

I often say that nostalgia is just not my jam. For better or worse, my brain is oriented toward what is ahead, so life’s rearview mirror is relatively unused in my world. Well, it got used a bunch on this return to Mississippi.

Upon landing in Gulfport, I rented a car and drove down Highway 49 to the Gulf Coast and then along the beach that had been ravaged by Katrina thirteen years ago and, as the kids say, I started to feel all the feels. I saw familiar landmarks such as Beauvoir, the Biloxi Lighthouse, and Mary Mahoney’s. I saw the Coast Coliseum where my oldest daughter graduated high school and Point Cadet where my youngest had her first dance recital. There was the familiar Sharkhead’s souvenir shop and Jaws-inspired entrance but with a post-Katrina transformation that turned the entire first floor into a shaded parking lot. The Treasure Bay casino pirate ship is simply gone forever, and although I had never stepped foot inside, that made me want to cry. I had misplaced certain memories like the unique combination of bright white sands and murky waters and wondered what else I had forgotten over the years. It appeared that my GPS had sent me unwittingly down Memory Lane.

Our old hometown of Ocean Springs really threw me for a loop. I drove downtown past Lovelace Drugs and the Walter Anderson Museum and had to get out on Front Beach just to breathe. I stopped for a heavenly Tato-Nut donut and drove to our old Katrina-flooded house and discovered that it now looks like it did that fateful day when we evacuated for the storm. I wasn’t sure what to think about that sort of resurrection.

But seeing old friends nearly made my heart explode with love. Jim and Dimple. Gene and Eileen. All the Fains. Bruno and Linda. Angie and Carol. Todd and Robin. Samantha and Shelly. Tandy and Peggy. Bernice and Cathy. Frances and Mark. Tim and Katie. Connor and Amanda. Debbie and Brynlee. There is so much love in my heart for Ocean Springs and the Mississippi Gulf Coast—especially for our friends. I knew that in my brain and held it in my heart, but this trip resurrected the feeling from deep in my soul. Nostalgia hit me like a wave and left me dizzy. Like that old storm surge.

I texted my wife to say that we have to go back and visit together sometime. She said that she had wanted to do that for a long time now.

I know that I should learn to stop and smell the roses. But I am learning that I should also stop, turn around, and head back to Mississippi to smell the magnolias from time to time.

24 > 23

Al & Jody

I married Jody when I was just twenty-three years old. Today is our twenty-fourth wedding anniversary. That’s my kind of math. More than half my life.

We had no clue what we were doing way back then. Well, I can only say for sure that I had no clue what I was doing. It all happened so fast: We met on New Year’s Day and married Memorial Day weekend, and there’s nothing smart about that at all. But when my buddy, Troy, who officiated our wedding asked if we would promise to love each other forever and ever, we must have meant it when we said yes. Because we have. And are. And will.

There is something absurd about choosing to marry someone. You really have no idea what experiences you signed up for—just the identity of your partner for the adventure. And I have had the best partner for the best adventure.

Twenty-four years ago today we were privileged to live in Arkansas where I coached high school basketball and where Jody worked in the office of a dairy. Today we live in California and have cycled through a variety of careers and houses and experiences while developing relationships with amazing people from all over the world. We now have two adult daughters who are our pride and joy. We never in a million years would have guessed how any of this has played out and what our life together would look like at this moment—but then again knowing would have taken away all the fun.

If we are blessed with twenty-four more years on this planet, I have absolutely no idea what they will hold, but the one thing I do know is that we will experience them together.

Together. What an incredible word.

Seize the Day(light)

Bed in Summer

Summer is officially a full month away, but on a university campus that recently put its final graduation ceremony to bed, it now feels like summer. Parking is suddenly fantastic. Campers will arrive soon. Neighbors are flung all over the world. And excepting the nuisance of May Gray and June Gloom, there are more hours of daylight to enjoy.

I love this time of year when the sun shows up early and goes home late. Life just seems full, and opportunities abound. Early morning runs are much easier when the sun beats you out of bed, and coming home from work is simply happier when the world is still bright. It makes me feel a little like a child again.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem, “Bed in Summer,” shares the perspective of a poor kid who isn’t very fond of winter but loves summer so much that having to obey parents at bedtime is torture!

In winter I get up at night
And dress by yellow candle-light.
In summer, quite the other way,
I have to go to bed by day.

I have to go to bed and see
The birds still hopping on the tree,
Or hear the grown-up people’s feet
Still going past me in the street.

And does it not seem hard to you,
When all the sky is clear and blue,
And I should like so much to play,
To have to go to bed by day?

 
I get it, kiddo. You know, today is Monday, and it is going to be Monday all day long. But it feels like a summer kind of Monday to me. And since I am officially a grown-up trying to hold on to a childlike heart, I can soak up the day for as long as I want and go to bed when I want to!

The True People

Nez Perce 1Lewiston (Idaho). Clarkston (Washington). Get it? Lewiston and Clarkston, two towns named for the legendary American explorers and located on opposite sides of the murky Snake River.

I rode in the backseat of the airplane/station wagon to Lewiston last week and landed in the tiniest airport ever. When you deplane and enter the terminal you can give high-fives to the folks going through security. You think I’m kidding. The rental car company picked me up at the airport’s front door and took me to the agency where I met Emily, a young, friendly, professional, and happy manager who told me what she had learned about the area in the five days since she arrived. My economy rental became a Suburban, and I wondered if this was actually Mayberry.

I drove the Suburban (the approximate size of the airplane) to my Airbnb rental where the warm welcome continued. Jack and Regina have a lovely home on the Clarkston side of the Snake with a sweeping view of the river valley and surrounding mountains. Regina left a scrumptious loaf of pumpkin bread in a room that was also stocked with fruit, yogurt, chocolate, and cheese along with juice, water, beer, and wine. On my last evening Jack invited me upstairs for a relaxing conversation on their spacious deck where I was welcomed as if I was family. I sent my wife a text to say that it was a good thing that I loved her so much because otherwise I might never come home.

Twice, I enjoyed a lazy run along the river. It is about a five-mile loop across two bridges and two state borders to run both the Clarkston river trail and the Lewiston levee. The dogwoods in full bloom. The pungent smell of the meandering river with driftwood hitching slow rides. The wildlife — squirrels, birds, ducks, and even a lone gopher. The troubled skies. An occasional walker and even more rare fellow jogger.

I dined in restaurants with names like Rooster’s, Jawbone Flats Cafe, Waffles ‘n More, and Tomato Brothers. But the history of the area — and what drew me there — was the sad story of the Nez Perce tribe.

The Nez Perce lived there first. They call themselves Nimipu — “the true people” — but French explorers saw a couple Nimipu with pierced noses and assigned that name — “the pierced noses” — to the entire people. The Americans signed a treaty of coexistence with them in 1855 but a later controversial treaty in 1863 reduced the tribal lands by 90% and led to a conflict resulting in the famed Flight of 1877, a military pursuit of the tribe including young and old that ended with Chief Joseph’s legendary statement, “I will fight no more forever.” Those who survived were exiled to faraway Kansas.

I drove out of town to the Nez Perce National Historic Park Visitor Center in sovereign lands to get a sense of the sad story. I walked the trail to the Spalding Presbyterian Church (pictured above) and contemplated the complicated relationship between natives of First Nations and Christian missionaries. And I learned that the Americans had long ago forced the Nimipu into boarding schools where the teachers attempted to erase their very language — an effort that nearly succeeded. Today, great efforts are underway to revive and recover the language before the few who still speak it pass away. It is all a sad story without a happy ending. As one Nimipu said in the visitor center film, “We still are in exile.”

I enjoyed my visit to the area named for Lewis and Clark very much and encountered nothing but lovely people and natural beauty. But like me, and like those early explorers, it sure was white. I can’t help but wonder what it might be like today if my American ancestors had let the Nimipu be. I’m sure the Nimipu wonder as well.

That Inward Eye

Picasso SolitudeI will head to the Idaho-Washington border tomorrow to spend a few days alone on a personal retreat—heaven for an introvert and a planner. Serving a church family that follows an academic calendar makes this the perfect time for such a thing. There is time to breathe and work to do, and there are dreams to dream and plans to develop. I am ready for all of this and more.

Solitude is an excellent work space and a good planning partner. There is something magical about standing at attention, all alone, listening for still, small whispers transported on air. I cannot wait.

I recall Wordsworth’s vivid description from over two centuries ago of a solitary cloud floating over thousands of golden daffodils and then an inner state of being that he can access so that his happy heart dances among those spectacular flowers. That’s what I’m talking about. That’s what I love about solitude.

I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud – by William Wordsworth

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

As I Sit Writing

William-Faulkner-quote

It is kind of cool to say that I read Jesmyn Ward before reading William Faulkner, but as a former Mississippian it felt wrong never to have read Faulkner so I purchased As I Lay Dying and devoured it while strapped to an airplane on a recent business trip. Faulkner is a legend, of course, especially so in Mississippi what with his Nobel and multiple Pulitzers and all.

As I Lay Dying is probably Faulkner’s runner-up to The Sound and the Fury for his best-known novel and is most assuredly a depressing story. The pitiful Bundren family’s sad series of misadventures attempting to bury the family matriarch is, well, pity-full, but instead of proceeding straight to therapy upon completing the book I found myself reflecting on Faulkner’s style.

If you remember (and/or care), Faulkner used fifteen different narrators for fifty-nine tiny chapters and a stream of consciousness literary technique that shared the disparate thoughts passing through the minds of his grieving characters. As he did, I found myself noticing and relating to their obvious loneliness, their feelings of detachment from everyone else. Each was so very alone. Alone with his or her thoughts.

I surely get how that feels.

There are many odd things about me, but the one I will share today boys and girls is that for some undetermined reason in my loneliness I regularly write down my inner monologue and share it with the world at large. That is odd, best I can tell. Most people learn to keep their thoughts to themselves, but I presumably was absent that day.

Maybe it is my own meager attempt to defeat loneliness. Or maybe loneliness has liberated me so that I am unafraid to share my inner thoughts.  Or maybe I am just weird. All are valid options.

Regardless, it is what I do, for what it is worth. Welcome to my world. Pull up a chair and stay awhile if you have nothing better to do.

The Fan

IMG_0521

THE FAN (a free verse poem by Al Sturgeon)

The memory arrived unprompted as a tender gift.

I had been sunburned yet again.

It was night as I lay in bed, miserable,

motionless, and cursing myself

for an apparent inability to learn a lesson.

 

I was a teenager, alone in that tiny bedroom,

alone with my restless imagination, naked

as a modest kid in a modest family could get

to ease the pain, limbs sprayed like a

hopeless summer attempt at a snow angel.

 

My mother had tried her best to provide

some lotion as a remedy but to no avail.

I would simply be miserable until I wasn’t;

there was nothing more to do but listen to

the silent sound of time passing.

 

But squeezed into the corner was an oscillating fan.

It stood watch through the night, keeping me company,

marking time with its fluttering whir, rhythmically sending

a breeze both soothing and not across my blistered skin—

a welcomed sensation in solitary confinement.

 

The rhythm led to a mindless world of nothingness.

No thought of the terrible fate of dressing in the morning.

No self-loathing. Just staring into dark eyelids with

my sweet parents next door; at peace, listening, awaiting

the consistent and predictable relief from the oscillating fan.

 

The memory arrived out of nowhere.

For a brief moment I was a kid again

with a mom and a dad who would answer

if I simply called their names. It was so real

that I could hear the whirring fan and feel the gentle breeze.

 

 

 

I Believe She Can Fly

Trapeze PicJewelry. A spa package. Something for the house. A lovely dinner. One might have guessed such an answer to my innocent question: What do you want for your birthday? But my wife said: Trapeze School. That was her immediate response. Like it wasn’t crazy at all.

She must have already attended Comedy School because she also asked if I wanted to join her on the flying trapeze. I thought that was hilarious, especially the way she acted like it was a serious question.

We drove to the Santa Monica Pier over the weekend so that my wife could celebrate her life by flirting with death in front of large numbers of lazy people who stopped to watch while stuffing their faces with nachos and funnel cakes. Me, I went with churros.

It was awesome. But then again, I really like churros.

But my wife was awesome, too. Jody spent a large chunk of our twenty-four years together avoiding physical activity and especially avoiding drawing attention to herself, but the last few years have witnessed a remarkable turn of events. She has claimed her spot in this life, and I was mesmerized last Saturday on that iconic boardwalk watching the woman I love sail across the bright blue sky like a boss in front of a cheering world.

Jody has many people who admire her, and cheer for her, and love her. But out of all those people, I was reminded on Saturday that I am the one lucky enough to have been chosen to live life as her partner. What an honor to stand on such solid ground and look up to watch her soar.

I don’t dare to imagine what she will want for her birthday next year. Apparently, the sky is not the limit.

Imagining the Unimaginable

MedeaListen. This is a story that has to be told.

That was the opening line of the classic Greek tragedy, Medea, that my wife and I attended at Pepperdine over the weekend. If you are familiar with the play, it is a story that you probably wish had never been told. But we continue to show up for resurrections of Euripides’ terrible tale century after century—so maybe it is true that the story is unavoidable.

I try to attend anything produced by the Fine Arts Division Theatre Program at Pepperdine because every production is always fantastic, and given that our friend, Brad, was the director of and that our friend, Lincoln, composed original electronic music for this particular performance, we marked our calendars for Medea months ago.  But wow, what a heart-wrenching story.

I remember the name, Euripides, from some high school textbook mostly because I thought it sounded funny.  (“Euripides pants and you’re in big trouble, mister!”)  But wow, how unhinged must this classic playwright have been to write such a horrible tale of cold-blooded, unthinkable revenge? What demented mind could imagine Medea, the character?

Obviously the mind of one of the more important playwrights in world history.

Maybe there was method to such madness.  Maybe Euripides wrote such a messed-up story to shine a light in the ugliest places of our world so that we might sheepishly walk out of a dark theater committed to building a world that is brighter?

I read that Euripides is known as someone whose work sympathized with society’s outcasts. In Medea we encounter someone so powerless that she resorts to maniacal actions to scream at a world in which she had heretofore been silenced. It is only through unimaginable actions that she is heard.

But I hope we do more than hear her screams. I hope that we listen. I hope that we listen because this is a story that has to be told. If not, we may find ourselves destroyed by the last resorts of the voiceless should their predictable actions not be prevented by the only safeguard remaining — the goodness of their own hearts.