My Malawi trip and–subsequently–life in general have been sitting inside of me like a big lump of stuff that needs to be sorted out. I have compared it to a ball of Christmas lights that you take out after a year of storage all tangled up: you don’t know where the beginning is nor the end, and you certainly aren’t ready to string it out into a pretty display for all to see. I am hoping to use this space to unfurl the big lump a bit. Into something pretty? Who knows. But at least something useful.

I have been thinking a lot since my trip about expectations and the element of surprise. As an example, let me share one story from my Malawian experience.

In rural Malawi, which is most of the country including where we were at, there is a very basic way of life. Very few people have cars, all roads off the main highway are dirt if even that, there is very little electricity in most homes, and virtually no running water. At Maji Zuwa, the wonderful organization and lodge we stayed at, we had it quite nice: a private chalet with my own bathroom that included a modern flushable toilet, sink, and shower. And electricity. One day, mid shower, the water ran out. We learned that the way that we have clean, usable running water is because there is a large water tower at the corner of the property that is filled from the lake, then treated, so it is safe for washing and consumption. We then watched, for the next 8 or so hours, a group of women carry very large buckets of water on their heads from the lake, up a rather steep incline several hundred feet to the water tower to refill it. In cloudless African heat. FOR EIGHT HOURS. So that I could flush the toilet, brush my teeth, and get my body clean. After witnessing this, I can assure you that I have never taken shorter showers in my life. And, perhaps this is TMI, but flushing after every other use of the toilet seemed sufficient.

Incidentally, prior to this, I had never given one second’s thought to where my water comes from at home. I just turn on the faucet and there it is. Clean and ready to use. And also available in hot should I choose it.

Expectations. I have begun to think of expectations as basically the ways we believe the world to run without much consideration that it could in fact run very differently from what we think. My expectations when I had them were constantly challenged in Malawi. Go to the ATM? No problem, but it’s gonna take over an hour to get there, an hour to withdraw cash, and an hour to get back. Ordering lunch? Sure, but the restaurant may not actually have the ingredients in stock that you ordered so they need to go get it. Perhaps you’ll eat in an hour or two.

As I was sitting my last evening at Maji Zuwa, watching the sunset over the lake, a chicken pecking the ground by my feet, a lizard crawling up the post next to me, the sounds of women doing their laundry down at the lake, children playing as they bathe in the water, a simple, yet fairly profound thought occurred to me: you have to be willing to let the world surprise you.

Being willing to be surprised seems to be the antidote to expectations and it’s faithful sidekicks frustration and disappointment. We are taught to see the world in a certain way and when it goes somewhere different, we are bummed, sometimes infuriated. We search for what/who to blame for such injustice. And when we are used to the world we know working in such a way, we may never even know to think that it could work differently. If my water went out at home, I would freak out. That’s not supposed to happen! And I wouldn’t have given an ounce of thought to the effort it would take to get it back on again.

I think this plays out on a personal level too. I think we learn to have very clear and concise expectations of ourselves. And when those expectations aren’t meant, we are hurt, sad, angry, or frustrated. Consequently, we hone in on these expectations so clearly to avoid such feelings that we may even start to eliminate room for growth or the potential to surprise ourselves.

What if we opened ourselves up to letting the world surprise us? Maybe, more importantly, what if we opened ourselves up to letting us surprise ourselves? Expectations limit what we can see: what potential might exist in our relationships, our skills at work. It cultivates the capacity for fear of change and eliminates a capacity for a courageous step into the unknown.

I have been blessed with some amazing cultural experiences that I know most people don’t ever get to have. And I see how those experiences have impacted my desire and hopefully willingness to see the world in new and different ways, and thus myself, as well. But I struggle with how to do that in the comfort of my own community and home. How can I continue to foster a desire for the element of surprise when I already feel myself sucked back into normal life and my powerful Malawian lessons slipping away? It doesn’t sit well with me. In fact, it gives me a headache.

I intend to let the world surprise me. And, subsequently, I intend to let ME surprise me. This is one takeaway from my Malawi experience. I know there is a more to come, but that is a fruitful place to start.

Everyone knows the childhood story of the Little Engine That Could. Well, after the Red Ribbon Ride I’ve decided that story is flawed. It all has to do with the Last Big Hill. (From here on known as LBH.)

On the ride, the emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual pinnacle came for me at the LBH. LBH happens on day 3 of the 4 day ride. People had been talking about it leading up til that day and at each pit stop on the way to LBH it was mentioned with curiosity, nervousness, excitement, and maybe even some dread. LBH happens at about mile 70 of a 72 mile ride from Rochester to Northfield. It’s fairly steep, and while it wasn’t the longest hill we endured it had developed quite a reputation given where its placed in the journey.

Day 3 was going to be my day of redemption for the ride. I hadn’t made it through the whole route on the first two days and I really wanted to prove to myself that I could. It was tough, but fun, to push myself mile after mile that day. I felt at points hopeful about it, singing to myself, talking with other bikers along the way, and at other points I was doubtful and scared as my energy level dropped and my body began to ache and yell at me to quit. Finally, I got to a turn towards the end and saw LBH right in front of me. As soon as saw it, I thought to myself, “you’ve got to be fucking kidding me. I’m determined to make it to the end today but to do so I have to bike up that?!”

The only way to the end is over. I didn’t bike 70 miles to be swept in for the final 2.

As I got closer, I noticed that LBH had someone positioned at the bottom cheering me forward. “The last big hill! You can do it. You’re on your way!” At the top of the hill was a big speaker sitting on the back of a car blaring a pumping, motivating song (though I can’t remember which one….I was hazy at the time.) Suddenly, the LBH has a soundtrack.

And, then, I see that scattered all the way up are members of the crew and other riders cheering, clapping, yelling, a woman came by and gave me a high five while misting me with a spray bottle of water. Astonishingly, the LBH wasn’t hard anymore. It was exhilarating. And I was doing it! One foot after another, tears streaming down my face, sobs under my heavy breath. It was just another part of the journey. A very emotional part.

I made it to the end that day. And it could quite honestly be one of the most exhilarating feelings I’ve ever had. I truly believe some demons in my mind got quieted when I pulled into park my bike. The demons that for years have told me I’m weak, I’m not good at this kind of stuff. The “I’m a wimp” voice got silenced that day. Not even LBH could keep him alive.

In the Little Engine That Could (to the best of my memory), he is presented with a similar task but his mantra to get up and over the hill was “I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.” Now this certainly isn’t wrong and it’s probably very vital, but for me the mantra that I learned from LBH that I think is pivotal is “WE think YOU can.”

“WE think YOU can.”

My mind was thinking “you’ve gotta be fucking kidding me” more than it was thinking “I think I can”, but the people cheering me up the hill were only thinking “we think you can.”

We all have a Last Big Hill. Maybe it’s the final interview for our dream job, the final round of pushing before a baby is born, or the hardest final exam on the last day of the semester. For others, it’s a little more extreme like the final round of chemo, your hearing to formally approve your adoption, of the excruciating detox before the beginning of a sober life.

If we’re lucky, the road after the LBH is flat to the finish line like it was for us. But many have another LBH waiting, maybe 100 of them. Perhaps the Last Big Hill never ends.

But what matters is the We Think You Can chorus. Who’s blaring the motivational music at the top of your hill? Who’s cooling you off with a mist of water? Who’s cheering you up and up and up? Who is making your road easier to endure?

Or, more importantly, who’s Last Big Hill are you standing on? Who’s hill are you poised on top of with a big ass speaker? Who needs you to get where they don’t believe they can go? Because I guarantee you someone does.

I could go on and on with this metaphor, but the main takeaway from this is WE. WE think YOU can. None of this me me me business.

Myself and a few hundred others spent the last year raising $300,000+ dollars for those living with HIV, as well as sweating and busting our asses (literally) for four days biking round the state to inspire and draw awareness. It feels damn good to be poised on the LBH of those living with HIV. I don’t know where the hill ends, but I’m already planning for next year’s ride and if you’ve been inspired by bearing witness to our journey, we hope you’ll consider joining us.

Because WE think YOU can.

So as anyone who pays attention to my Facebook knows (probably more than they care to) I’m participating in the Red Ribbon Ride tomorrow. 4 days, 300 miles. In addition, I didn’t even have a bike before last summer for about a decade. Also, I didn’t ride it this year until about a month ago. Also, the furthest I’ve biked up to this point at one time is 40 miles. And, to top it all off, we are under a heat advisory until tomorrow night and our team outfits tomorrow are almost entirely black.

I’m terrified. But excited. In fact, I get emotional just thinking about doing it. Here’s why:

For a long time, I was someone who fantasized about doing things, going on adventures, living in a place where I am working my edges. But I didn’t do it. I always thought about it but never did it. Fear always got in the way. Or laziness. I’ve also read and learned enough that by living in those places I was also living in a place where joy isn’t possible. I want a life that follows joy.

I’ve been on adventures now, and they can be just as terrifying beforehand. The day before I left for South Africa, I imagined every possible scenario that lead to disaster. (My therapist called it catastrophizing.) I don’t want to get into why I do that because that’s a whole other mantra, but I just really need to point out to myself right now that the build up to an adventure sometimes feels like it sucks out my soul. There’s that old part of me, the one who identified myself as a wimp a long time ago, that likes to take charge and come up with all the reasons that I can’t live a life out loud, on my edge, adventurously, courteously.

And that’s why I get emotional. That voice, Wimpy, doesn’t get too much power any more. He wants me to live a safe, easy life. If I really had any interest in doing that, I’d eat hot pockets and play level one of candy crush over and over again. No. As we move along, in whatever way we explore the world, we have to push the edges. And the more I do it, Wimpy’s voice gets a little quieter and quieter. I hope to some day not hear him at all. (Did I just name a voice inside me Wimpy during this blog post? Does that sound crazy? Actually I don’t think it does, because I’m sure many others can relate.) Me emotions come from a place of understanding that life is now at least joy adjacent ether than fear centered.

As I shared with a friend these anxieties, he reminded me that all I have to do is show up and pedal. That’s it. There’s no fire hoops to jump through along the way, no tight ropes to jump across. Our adventures are more accessible than we think they are. All we have to do is show up to them and start pedaling.

I look forward to telling you about the journey when I return. I take the stories of those I know living with HIV with me, as well as those who have lost that fight. I also take the support of the people who sponsored me to do this. More people than I ever imagined possible.

More to come from this little adventure…

I’ve been circling around for the past two weeks how to compose a blog post summarizing some of my main takeaways from my South Africa trip. I think I’m finally ready to do it. My main takeaway, the thing that I want to bring forth in myself and therefore into the world: I want to be someone who empowers other people to know that they matter. Allow me to explain.

It relates to a story I told just a few blog posts back about the orphanage we visited in South Africa. In the dilapidated yard of the orphanage, there was a trampoline. Much like one you’d see in the backyard of somewhere near your house: round, probably about 8 ft in diameter. This trampoline though had half of the legs missing and was sitting half slumped on the ground, broken. But it was still the main attraction for play for the kids. I don’t remember who said it but someone pointed it to us that when all you have to play with is a broken trampoline you believe you’re broken too.

There is a strong possibility that no one in the world has ever told these kids that they matter prior to the care of this orphanage. In fact, when one ends up abandoned by his or her parents I think it’d be a pretty big stretch to believe that one mattered at all.

Jacquelyn, one of the students on the South Africa trip, likes words and shared with us the etymology of different words and it was fascinating because it revealed so much about the language we use and what lies behind a simple word. Like matter for example. While I don’t necessarily know the root of the word, I do know that in science matter means some sort of mass with weight. I don’t think it’s too far of a stretch that the same holds true for people. When you matter, it means you have weight. That you are an actual being in the world, formed, with some oomph behind you. I can tell you that there are people in the world who don’t know that they matter. That all of the messages they believe about themselves, the things they’ve heard or internalized because of abuse, discrimination, illness, poverty, or whatever else very clearly send them the message that they don’t matter.

It makes me think of another story from South Africa. On our final afternoon in Gugulethu, we had some time to play with local kids at a sports complex. Being I had my teacher hat on most of the time, I was constantly counting my students and knowing where they were. I couldn’t find Joe, one of the students. I looked around and saw him way across the field talking to a young guy. He waved back (I think he knew I was looking for him) so I rested easy that everything was fine. When Joe and his new friend came over, he had on Joe’s Minnesota sweatshirt. As we walked back to the community center, Joe explained that his friend’s shirt was quite torn so he offered it up to him. A few minutes later, the guy came back and gave Joe all his contact info. He said he wanted a cell phone for his birthday, so when we left the country Joe left his South African phone with some local friends with explicit instructions to get it to the new found friend.

On some level, I think that’s a beautiful story of two people showing each other they matter. Joe learned what he had to give, and I don’t just mean stuff like a sweatshirt and phone. He learned that he had his time and attention to give to a guy who needed a friend that day. And his friend gave Joe the same in return: purpose, a reason to matter, even if just for the afternoon, in the world.

It makes me think of my own journey too on this gay pride weekend here in Minneapolis. I know I matter. And I know how fortunate I am to be where I am and who I am in this world. But there was a time when I didn’t. I thought being gay was going to be like a life sentence of degradation or discrimination. I know that sounds melodramatic, but that was truly my fear when I was younger. I didn’t think I mattered as much as others if I were gay. Thank god I was wrong.

It took other people to help me learn this. Great friends from the minute I came out. A family that has always encouraged me to be whoever I am. An entire community to show support and champion for equal rights. I know I matter in the world because other people helped me figure it out.

So I want to be someone who lets other people know they matter. Because we all do. Unfortunately, our world isn’t set up for all of us to receive this message. I’m not quite clear yet how to formulate this into something more concrete, but I had to put it out there. Because now I’m accountable to it. And, if you’re reading this and you didn’t know or it seemed lately like its not so: you matter. You have weight in this world. Unique, important weight. And don’t forget it.

Something I’ve been relating to a lot here in South Africa and spending a lot of time thinking about is the negative effects of alcoholism and addiction on the communities we’ve been in the last week. If you do quick google search of alcoholism in South Africa you’ll find some very alarming statistics. And the stories we heard back this up. It would seem, at least from what I can tell, that chemical dependency is a root cause of some of the larger community issues at play: domestic abuse, crime, murder, child neglect and abandonment, and HIV.

One of the most emotional moments of our time in Gugulethu for me was a short visit we made with the hospice caregivers associated with the JL Zwane Centre. During these visits we basically tagged along to say a quick hello to the patients and gain a little perspective of their life and circumstances. This was a very difficult task for many of us. It is challenging to feel as if we aren’t intruding on these people’s lives or causing turmoil or embarrassment by our presence. And, honestly, some of the people are just very difficult to witness.

At one of the houses we went to, a woman was taking care of her sisters who is mentally ill. Because of this she can’t really walk far, has a difficult time with her motor skills, and the hospice caregivers help clean her since she doesn’t have control of her bladder or bowel movements. But she was so happy and so excited to see us. It was a welcome sight to see her smile and jump up and down when we arrived. When we asked why she was mentally ill, her sister told it is from drinking too much. That she would do anything she could to drink and slowly it has deteriorated her brain and subsequent functions.

I realize that addiction and alcoholism are problems virtually everywhere, and–like other places I’m sure–in the community there wasn’t a whole lot of conversation about the issue and I didn’t rally see many resources available for those who might want to get help. As an example, there are many AA and NA meetings in the Cape Town area but they are all in the cities and suburbs. None exist to my knowledge in the townships. At the meetings I’ve gone to for myself, the crowd is mostly white so they are not coming in from the townships to go to these meetings.

If I could do one thing right now to try to help, it would be to get an AA or NA meeting started in Gugulethu. This is how I’ve gotten sober and it’s how I continue to stay sober. I’d love to see this same resource available for people who need it in their own community. In fact, I do plan to work on this and if anyone else reading this has a similar desire to help see if this is a positive addition to the community, let me know!

Today, we listened to a local minister named Xola Skosana who is very involved with community work. He challenged us to think about our actions while in Gugulethu. More specifically, if what we’re doing is causing more harm than good? He kept pressing the point that the goal with any kind of work meant to change lives for the better should have at its purpose to restore dignity and worth.

Very good points for sure, and what we did after this really proved it. We traveled to Barcelona…not Spain, but an informal settlement near Gugulethu. An informal settlement is where people build small homes and businesses out of leftover materials of wood, scrap metal, or whatever else is available. It’s quite a lot to take in for those of us who aren’t used to such sights. We drove into Barcelona to go visit an orphanage that the JL Zwane Centre supports.

Due to heavy rains earlier in the week the dirt roads which are already poor were flooded and too rough for the van to make it the whole way to the orphanage so we had to walk part of the way. It is quite a sight that is really hard to describe: many shacks, one after the other, which lead to other roads that house other small shacks with mud floors, some with water coming right up to the door from the rain. And people everywhere of any age, stray dogs, cows, and goats. There are small snack stores and salons and bars lining the street between makeshift homes. It has to be thousands of people living in these shacks in just this one small area.

How does one find their dignity and worth in such an area? Or how does someone else come in and help them find it?

Then, we got to the orphanage. While it was quite a spacious area of buildings compared to the cramped quarters we passed, it is the same kinds of structures. 22 children live at the orphanage at a range of ages. Many are there because they were abandoned by their parents probably because they were born with HIV.

The man who ran the orphanage told us the story of one boy whose mother tried to kill herself and him when he was two months old. She wasn’t successful and when the police came to help her they didn’t even realize the boy was there because he had been stuffed into a plastic bag. They only realized it when they threw the bag into the police car.

The other childrens’ stories are just as hard I’m sure because no one ends up there from a happy beginning. And it really makes me think about this idea about how to restore dignity and worth. Who is to help these kids know they are worthwhile? That they are just as important as the kids with parents or the kids that are living in actual homes in the city?

And what are the implications for us? For you and me? Do you have dignity? How do you know? How did you get it? Did you find it yourself? Or did someone help you?

My time in the townships always leaves me with more questions than answers and this day is no different. But when we left the orphanage, they were thankful for our presence. That by simply being there we are providing hope and if nothing else a bright spot. I hope so….I have to believe that or I don’t know how to process my experience there otherwise.

We are one week into our trip, so a quick recap for you as I haven’t been very good about updating this daily: we’ve heard much about the history and current politics of South Africa, we’ve been to some museums around slavery and the forced removal of black and coloured people during apartheid, we’ve been to cape point and the cape of good hope with a stop to visit the penguins along the way, we’ve also seen some ostriches and baboons running about, as well as some lions, zebras, rhinos, springbok, and other various things at a game park today.

But I think the person I would most like to tell you about is Lucinda Evans. She runs an NGO for women and children who are victims of abuse called Philisa Abafazi. She started this organization after herself being a victim of abuse at the hands of her boss. She started it out of her garage. And it has moved into a larger organization with many programs that services many people.

Lucinda came across as smart, no nonsense, but also warm and funny. She talked of almost getting arrested at the US consulate just to hand in a grant application (she received the grant). She talked of meeting Michele Obama. She talked passionately about the need for leadership skills taught to those on the ground doing the hard work, as well as the women who find her center who need help. She talked of the cultural expectations of African women and how she defies those to do what she does. The more she talked, the more enthralled we all were with her. We hope to go visit her center during the third week of our trip.

I love courage. I love hearing from courageous people. I asked her where she gets her courage from, and she said it comes from a time when she was shot and almost killed.

The penguins are nice, so are the views from Table Mountain, as well as the dinners along the water in Camps Bay and the ride in a safari jeep by some lions and zebras. But it’s people like Lucinda that are the reason I come here. I long for stories of courage and I literally feel more alive when I bear witness to them.

It’s because I am not, by default, that courageous of a person. It isn’t natural for me. Fear is natural for me it seems. But I detest living in fear. Sure I can be courageous. In fact, I’m learning to be courageous without even noticing I’m doing it. (Trust me: taking a group of college students halfway around the world requires some courage!) But my stories and capacities of courage become more easily found when I hear such tremendous examples like those from Lucinda.

I’ve learned it’s when people are talking not from their mind but from their heart. If you’re talking from your heart, I believe you’re sharing your courage. If you’re caught up in your head, you’re caught in fear. Lucinda embodied that for me, and I believe we all can do it.

Tomorrow we leave to stay in the township of Gugulethu for the week. Stories of courage abound there. As well as stories of love, heartbreak, loss, joy, sadness, pleasure, and pain. I can’t wait to take it all in and bring the students along with me. It’s one of the most vibrant communities I’ve ever been to, and I leave I piece of my heart (and my own courage?) there every time I go.

So, on Friday when we return to our guest houses in Cape Town, I hope to have more stories to share with you, but I also, if you’re like me, hope you have found a reason to call upon your everyday courage in whatever you do today.

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