Monday, August 31, 2015

A Universal Conspiracy: Afghanistan, Selection, and a little Fate?

No I did not have a camera in the bathroom during Selection. I returned a few days later to take this picture.

On September 12, 2001, I sat in a field at University of New Mexico and thought about my life. I wondered if I was headed in the right direction and if what I would do later down the road would have an impact on the world, and help prevent 9/11 from occurring again. I felt an extreme sadness and confusion about what had just happened, but what was clear to me on that day was that somehow I had to learn more about Afghanistan. Someday I would go there.

Ten years later, after a lot of living, I went to Afghanistan to teach. The twisty turning road of my life took me to many different countries as a teacher; I went through highs and lows with sports; was married and divorced; and eventually had forgotten about my earlier need to see and live in Afghanistan. When I was offered a fellowship there, however, all of those feelings resurfaced.

I wondered, "Will I die there?"

It turns out that most of my family and friends thought of that too.

A few days before I left for Kabul, my friend Nick asked: "Jaala, are you ready to die teaching in Afghanistan?"

I took a few seconds to consider this question and said, "Yes. I am." 

He asked me to explain.

I told him that ten years ago I knew that I would go to Afghanistan someday to learn about the place and to teach. I knew that I would be such a small piece in the larger picture of what was happening in the world with regards to the war and the fighting and the danger of the place. But I was willing to go there because it was right to me. Not only would teaching affect maybe one person and make a small change, but my heart had called me there years ago, so I would listen.

In the book The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho says, "When we least expect it, life sets us a challenge to test our courage and willingness to change; at such a moment, there is no point in pretending that nothing has happened or in saying that we are not ready. The challenge will not wait. Life does not look back. A week is more than enough time for us to decide whether or not to accept our destiny."

Ironically, it took me about a week to accept the job.


I went, I lived, I thrived, I saw, I taught, I learned...and I returned many more times.

My life changed in a multitude of ways before, during, and after my time in country. I'm still not sure If I have uncovered all of the lessons therein. I'm still learning day by day what being in that place means to me, and what it means for my future. Even though I am not there anymore, pieces of me remain.

My friends have grown, changed, gotten more education, expanded their families, and I've gotten to see it all happen. My Afghan "sister" becomes more beautiful everyday; I want to hug her and tell her I love her, because part of her spirit lives in me.

And now friends that were lost have been found again, and live in me here in the states in the strangest of ways. Just when I need them the most, little signs appear showing me that their love follows me on my journey through life. 

Though this was not going to be a story about Selection; the event is woven into the fabric of my life, so what isn't a story about Selection these days?

During Selection in Bozeman, in between the 5 mile run and 12 mile ruck march, I had a chance to use the public bathroom. I ran into the stall, focused and tried to move quickly. When I was doing my thing, I looked up at the door to the bathroom stall and saw lyrics to an old Beatles song, "Blackbird" written there.

At that moment I knew that I would be okay, no matter what happened during the event. To me that song reminded me of a special person in Afghanistan; I had already been singing the lyrics that weekend, and to see it scrolled there on the bathroom wall in the middle of Montana in a public restroom, I knew that I was moving in the right direction.

I'm not sure if I fully understand life yet, but I do know this is for sure: When something is right, when something is meant to be, just like Coelho said later in The Alchemist:

 "... todo o Universo conspira para que vocĂȘ realize seu desejo.
...all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it."

I desperately want to live a life full of challenges, love, and growth. I want to constantly be moving forward, yet serenely taking in all that this time and space has to offer me. I want to meet the challenges as they come, inspire others to do the same, and have a positive affect on the world.

These days it seems to be that the Universe agrees with my wishes.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Meeting the Challenge: Fields of Flowers and Selection 017

 Calm before the storm; getting ready for the PT test at GoRuck Selection 017
Why am I here?
 Story time; the after party
My buddy, Jason

It was 2003 and I had claimed my very own seat on a city bus in Chengdu, China. I had already won a small battle; this was the first time I wasn't stuck under some sweaty shirtless man's armpit standing pressed against another 100 people trying to see the street from the fogged up windows.

Even before I landed the seat, I was feeling quite proud of myself for being able to read the sign that said this was the bus that would take me home. Though it was headed in the wrong direction, I thought that since the roads in the city ran on a ring system, and I was on the other side of the ring from my house, it didn't really matter which direction the bus was traveling; I'd get there eventually.

I was a bit wrong about this. Careening through Chengdu City on that gray afternoon, just before my usual stop, the bus took a sharp turn off of the main road. I yelled at the driver to stop, but he smiled and had no intention of pulling over. The next stop was 20 minutes away, through rapeseed fields and on the outskirts of the city. I had no control of the outcome; we finally arrived at the city bus depot.

Sitting in the back of the bus crying, not understanding anything anyone was saying, I was literally lost. I had no idea where I was and no idea how to get back to where I was going. The bus driver dragged me off the bus and told me to go away. I stood in a dirt parking lot, wondering what to do...

This is what was on my mind for a moment when I was sitting in a truck, recovering from hypothermia at GoRuck Selection 017. 

Just moments before, I heard someone yelling in my face "Stop f'ing SHIVERING!"

I remember rolling back and forth in the freezing water, doing some inch worms, getting farted on in the face, standing up, pressing my ruck over my head, then...nothing.

Later the cadre would tell me that we were taken out of the water to run around and get warmed up. However at the end of the run, I stumbled in a different direction than the remaining 8 candidates. The cadre chased after me, basically carried me to a truck, then tried to warm me out of my stupor; they wanted me to go back out there and rejoin the welcome party. It was't meant to be. After 45 minutes, I finally was aware of my surroundings.

But by then it was too late. The welcome party raged on and I found myself shivering and eating a chocolate chip cookie in a 100 degree truck cab. I cried.

How did I get there? Where was my ruck? Why were my boots on the dash?

This reminds me of that time on the bus in China...

I looked through the windshield and saw fields of yellow flowers. I was a bit confused as to why I was back in China.

I brought myself back to reality.

The fields of flowers were actually street lights on the other side of the pond in Bozeman, Montana where we were doing our welcome party. Finally, I understood that I was done with Selection 017 and didn't even have a choice. This outcome was out of my control; just as the outcome of that bus ride through Chengdu city was.

After it was all said and done, I reflected on what Selection meant to me, and what I could have learned; this is what I saw:

Though the end came swiftly, the prologue was much more extensive and interesting. Though the result seems sudden and certain, it wasn't a result at all.

This Selection meant more to me than any other event I had ever trained for.

I spent two years honing my body and mind to handle the stresses I would undergo during the 48 hour Selection event. My life changed drastically; I both gained and lost immeasurable things, all of which were necessary to become who I am today.

And so I see that the journey is not over.

Though I took a sharp turn away from what I saw was the initial end point, that turn was out of my control. What lies before me, and the choices I make to deal with it are all up to me. I can be disappointed for not finishing Selection, or I can see this experience as more training to finish the next one.

Will I be at Selection again?

Well, I like to think about a conversation that my good friend Chris Holt and I had about mountaineer George Mallory and why he climbed Mt. Everest multiple times. Mallory said:

"The first question you will ask and that I will try to answer is this: What is the use of climbing Mt. Everest? and my answer must be: it is of no use. There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever. We shall not bring back a single bit of gold or silver, not a gem nor any coal or iron. We shall not find a single foot of earth that can be planted with crops to raise food. It's no use. So if you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won't see why we go."

In thinking about all that lies ahead, I'd like to meet the challenge. I'd like to meet it because my heart calls me there, not because of what I'll get when I have reached the goal. So will I be there again?

How can I not?