The Runner. The Birder. The EMT. The Man Who Couldn't Breathe.
One of the real gifts of the past three and a half years has been learning to appreciate and not take for granted, well, anything.
Let me give you an example. I started running when I lived in Alabama. The Shakespeare Festival, where I went to school, was situated on this beautiful English inspired park in the suburbs of Montgomery. It was a beautiful place to run. It took you by a pond, thatched roofs, the museum. Then, of course, the theatre itself, with its entrance lined with trees.
Right across the street from the theatre was a much smaller park with another running path. While it lacked the impressive view, it was super convenient, with mile markers to let you know how far you had gone. For my two years of school, these paths were my jam. I would run them individually, or if I was feeling really crazy, I would run them both at once. I was running four to five days a week. Which based on what I heard from all the actors at the theatre, was going to be really important for my career.
I kept running when I finished grad school. I had moved to California and it was a fun way to explore my new surroundings. And the air smelled incredible. It was perfumed with by the eucalyptus trees and the soft sea air. It was just the most wonderful, deep, earthy smell. Sometimes I would just close my eyes and breathe it in.
California wasn’t meant to be, however, and in 2003, my ex-wife and I moved to New York City. Goodbye eucalyptus trees and soft sea air, hello exhaust fumes and angry pedestrians. It took me a couple of years to find my footing, running in New York, but I found it. Because despite the exhaust fumes and the angry pedestrians, there is a kind of magic running in the city. On nice spring days I would work lunch shift and then run home to Brooklyn from midtown. I would cross bridges into Burroughs, I would learn backstreets between neighborhoods. While it never quite made me a real New Yorker, it taught me some things that only I was meant to know. Showed me things only I was meant to see. Which is the beauty of running. Yeah it’s good for you, blah blah blah, but being that close to the streets of a place shows you things were meant for your eyes only. It whispers things only you were meant to hear.
I stopped running when I moved back to South Carolina. I mean, I ran some, but not enough to call myself a runner. Then we moved to Atlanta. Then I got sick. And at my first treatment I met a guy who told me his biggest piece of advice was to stay active. Ever since then, every day I could, I ran. When I couldn’t run, I walked. In Atlanta I ran in a little nature preserve behind my apartment. In Greenville, I ran in the neighborhood across the street from my apartment. Then, in September of 2018, I did a play at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, back in Montgomery, and was running in the very parks where I started. All of a sudden I was 23 again. Mesmerized by the pond and the thatched roofs and the tree lined streets. I savored every sweaty step.
If that’s not a bit of magic, I don’t know what is.
In the Winter of 2019, things moved to my lungs, and I haven’t been able to run since. I hope be back out there, but until then, I have replaced them with walks. For a while there, even they got tricky. I had gotten a job teaching at Furman University. I had about an hour and a half between each class, which I would spend in the library half way across campus. I would cough the whole way there and wheeze the whole way back.
As I told Jaimie about what was happening, I would make jokes. I would say things like, “Great! Now I’ve got to appreciate breathing??”
And I did. I promised that if and when my breathing came back, I would never take it for granted. Now that it’s improved, sometimes I’ll just lie in my bed, take big deep breaths, and thank God I'm not coughing until I throw up. Because there are few things scarier than not being able to breathe. Since we do it without thinking, it is so easy to take it for granted.
To not realize it’s a bit a magic.
I taught two classes at Furman, Intro to Theatre and Solo Performance. The students in the Solo Performance class, their final project was to write and perform a ten minute play. All by themselves! I found one of the pieces particularly resonate. It was called The Top 26 State Birds of the United States of America, and it was about my student's deep love of birds.
Turns out he was an avid birder, which apparently is an odd thing to be into in high school. It can make finding friends more difficult. “Want to look at birds?” is a less appealing question than, “Want to get drunk and hit on girls?”
The play also talked about the challenges of birding. That shit is hard! The patience. The knowledge. The photography. I was moved by the deep interest in the natural world required to take up a hobby like that.
That play really changed me. And while I am in no way, shape, or form a birder, I am much more aware of them. Now when I meditate in the morning, I open my door, I close my eyes, and I listen to the birds. The different sounds they make. The different tones. Within seconds I am connected to the larger world.
If that’s not a bit of magic, I don’t know what is.
Sometimes I hear people say that what I do, performing, speaking in public, is the scariest job in the world. While I appreciate what they are saying, it's a bunch of bullshit. There are WAY scarier jobs. Here are three without even thinking about it:
1. Surgeon. Which means you have to cut somebody open.
2. Being a catcher in the major leagues. Which means you have to try and stop a 100 mile an hour fastball with one hand behind your back while a bat is being swung by a guy on jacked up steroids right next to your head!
3. Being an EMT/Ambulance driver. Which means you have to arrive first at the scene of a horrible accident. See all the carnage. Keep every calm. And then attempt to stop bleeding or give CPR and then drive like a race car driver, busting through red lights, trying to get to the nearest hospital in enough time so the person in the back doesn’t, you know, DIE before you get there. Holy mother I had a panic attack just writing that last sentence.
I'll talk in front of a room full of strangers any day of the week!
During my time in treatment, maybe the only thing I HAVEN’T had to do is ride an ambulance. That changed back in March!
Don't worry. I wasn’t riding an ambulance in a scary way. I was simply staying in one hospital and was going to get radiation treatment at a different one, so they took me there in an ambulance. On the way, I got to chat with the EMT who rode with me in the back. I felt like I was in the company of a rock star. I was in awe of what this person did. I had so many questions for the guy, all of which were slightly different variations of “How can you look at that much blood?”
The EMT, of course, downplayed it. Just part of the job, he said. You just wait for the training to kick in, he said. I didn’t buy it. I mean, of course it’s part of the job and of course your training kicks in, but to be able to look at someone that injured and stay calm, if that’s not a bit of magic, I don’t know what is.
Over the past couple of months in this country, African Americans have been gunned down and had the cops called on them for:
2. Being an EMT asleep in her own bed
4. Saying they couldn't breathe.
I think the thing cancer has made me appreciate the most, is life itself. The fragility of it all. How easily it can be taken away. And how valuable it is. That this is the one we get, and once it’s gone...
Three of these four African Americans lost their lives, their one and only life, for doing things white people take so for granted we don’t even think about them.
Mr. Arbery, the runner, making his way through neighborhoods he had known for years. Ms. Taylor, the EMT, asleep in her own bed. Mr Floyd, asking someone to let him breathe. Mr. Cooper, the Harvard educated birder, who might have made it four for four if he wasn't smart enough to get the heck out of there.
Running. Birding. Sleeping. Asking to breathe. Three of four of them dead. At the hands of people sworn to protect them.
How would you feel if this happened to someone you knew. Or someone who looked like you. How would you feel if taking a jog felt like taking a risk. Or if looking at birds might put you in a dangerous situation. Or if you were asleep, and the police shot you in bed eight times while the person they were looking for was already in custody. Or if you asked someone for air over and over again and a group of people ignored you.
Until we as white people really put ourselves in the shoes of others, this is going to keep happening, as it has happened for the entire history of our country. The only difference is now we can see it. Because of the cell phones in our pockets.
Maybe there's a bit of magic in that. I certainly hope so. Because it's going to take nothing less than that to save us.