I recently completed a 10-week course offered by the Southern California chapter of the Sierra Club call the Wilderness Travel Course (WTC). Though I’ve done quite a few day hikes I was looking to improve my knowledge and skills at it relates to the outdoors to build my confidence to spend more time deeper in the wilderness.
“Beach or Mountain?” is a common question posed to those of us living those Southern California. It is an embarrassment of natural riches to have the choice. I’m not opposed to the occasional beach day, but it doesn’t call to me like the mountains. Growing up in the landlocked prairie-lands of the Midwest, beach days were special events that only happened when we were on vacation, so I never got accustomed to having the sea be a part of my everyday life.
The mountains, on the other hand, are a place that has always captured my imagination. I remember distinctly in Jr. High day-dreaming out the window of the third-floor classroom, imaging mountains in the distance. “How beautiful that would be,” I remember thinking to myself.
To ancient people, the mountains were a mystical and dangerous place, a place reserved for the gods. Sacred mountains are hallmarks of religions and legends. Their proximity to the heavens made them the place where humankind would go to encounter the divine. Mount Etna was home to Vulcan, the Roman god of fire. Mount Kailash, the abode of the Hindu deity Shiva. For the Greeks, it was Mount Olympus. Moses entered the presence of God and received the ten commandments on Mount Sinai.
Modern man has been on a millennia-long quest to tame the wilderness and conquer the mountains. We’ve been pretty successful at it. Thousands of people have now summited Mount Everest since Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hilary first reached its peak in 1953. Each year the list of unclimbed mountains and unclimbed routes dwindles. Yet, it is now that we need the mountains more than ever.
Too much of the day, the week, the year I live with my head down staring at a pane of magic glass that lures my attention feeding me updates, opinions, photos, movies, music, and games. The more connected I am, the less connected I become. The mountain offers a remedy. Head up. Eyes forward. The breeze in my face and the warm sun on my skin. Listen to its wild silence.
The WTC was comprised of 10 classroom sessions and four wilderness trips. It covered everything from equipment, nutrition, and trip planning to map & compass navigation and basic first aid. The wilderness does not adapt to you. It is wild. You must adapt to it. The course does not teach “survival skills.” It teaches you to be prepared and make good decisions so that you never need Bear Grylls’ skills to survive a trip outdoors.
The philosopher Martin Buber said, “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” When I step into the wild, I may aim for a peak or spot on the map, but the true destination lies elsewhere. The dust on my boots and the sweat on my brow are simply the outward signs of an internal change - a humbling. Lost in the savage beauty of the wild unknown, I find myself.
Last Sunday, I spoke at Central Avenue Church in Glendale, CA. It was the first sermon I’ve given since I moved to Los Angeles in 2005. In the early 2000s, I regularly spoke when I was on part-time staff at churches in New Hampshire and Connecticut. A lot has changed since then. I’m older. I've grown from life experiences. And I’ve had a lot of time to think about what I would say. Here it is. I spoke on the Parable of the Wedding Feast. You can listen to it below.
A hand-drawn map given to us the night before our trek began.
What to say? I’ve been pondering what to write about the mountain since I returned.
We’ll start with the facts. It was a 49-mile trek up and over the world tallest freestanding mountain. We took the Rongai route to the summit, a drier but less popular route because of its starting location on the north side, the Kenyan side, of the mountain. It took four days to reach the summit. We trekked through diverse climate zones including rain forest, moorland, alpine desert, and artic. It was cold at the top, especially at night, wind chill around 0 degrees. There were 21 people in our group. 17 reached the crater rim. We descended the mountain on the Marangu route, a popular route on the southeast side of the mountain. A crew of 75 guides and porters assisted us at varies times along the way.
Those are the facts, but the experience is something I’ll be thinking about for the rest of my life.
Mornings on the mountain began with a guide knocking on our tent and a choice of tea or coffee - a hot drink to enjoy in our tent while our bodies woke to a new day. The guide would return later with “washy washy,” a bowl of warm water for which we could try to maintain some semblance of hygiene. Around 7am a breakfast consisting of porridge, bread and jam, eggs, and fruit was served in the mess tent.
After breakfast, we packed and set-off for the day's journey. I carried a daypack with three litters of water, extra clothing layers, snacks, and essentials, like sunscreen. My duffle bag, which contained the rest of my gear, was carried by a porter… on her head. The stamina the porters demonstrated was remarkable. They did everything we did (except for the summit) only much faster and with a heavier load.
When we reached camp in the afternoon, our tents were set-up and ready for us, and a snack of popcorn and hot tea awaited in the mess tent. The operation was seamless. It made the time on the mountain not only bearable but also enjoyable. Mountain living, it turns out, wasn’t so bad (except for the not showering for days and having to use a toilet tent).
For the first couple days, the pace was excruciatingly slow. “Pole pole” (pronounced poll-e, poll-e) the guides would implore us. “Slowly Slowly” It is how you acclimatize to the mountain. It is how you reach the top. By day four, they wouldn’t have to remind us to "pole pole."
The most challenging days of the trek were days 4 and 5, which felt like one long day. On day four we walked 5 hours across the barren wilderness called “the saddle.” It was a moonlike landscape of dirt and rocks and few hardy floras. The views were sweeping, the distances deceptive. The winds howled, piercing our wool and nylon layered defenses. It was a taste of what was to come, but we didn’t know it yet.
We arrived at Kibo Hut, base camp, early in the afternoon. We ate lunch and then were sent to our tents to rest for the afternoon. We would make our push to the summit that night.
At dinner, we learned that one of our fellow trekkers would leave the mountain immediately because of altitude sickness. Struggling the last couple days with nausea, headaches, and fatigue his condition was not improving. He had become incoherent, and a blood/oxygen reading had indicated that it was serious. They gave him emergency oxygen, put him on a stretcher, and three guides rushed him to a camp at a lower altitude. There, a vehicle would take him to a hospital where he could be monitored by doctors. Fortunately, he would be fine. Once off the mountain and at a lower altitude he returned to his usual self.
That’s the thing about altitude sickness; you never know how it’s going to affect you. Age and fitness level have little to do with it. I was fortunate. I experienced only minor effects from the altitude.
After dinner, we returned to our tents to rest. I was restless, wondering camp, snapping pictures, looking up at the snow-covered carter. I spoke to one of the guides who implored me, “My friend. Please try to get some rest.” I heeded his advice and returned to my tent and tried to get some sleep. At 11pm the guide knocked on our tent. It was time to go. We met in the mess tent, where they tried to feed us again, but nobody had much of an appetite.
At midnight we lined up, headlamps blazing, and began our slow march up the crater wall. I’ve been asked why we started the final ascent in the middle of the night. I’m not entirely sure, but I think it is a combination of factors. The weather is more predictable. It provides the opportunity to see the sunrise from the peak. It saves time, only needing to spend one night at high altitude base camp instead of two. But I think a primary reason is that in the dark, you can only see what’s right in front you. It forces you to stay in the moment, one foot in front of the other.
I wore five layers over my torso: a long-sleeve polyester base layer, a wool sweater, a synthetic down jacket, a zip-up fleece, and the water-resistant windbreaker. On the bottom, I wore a pair of leggings and thick hiking pants. Covering my head was a wool skullcap and a thicker stocking cap. I was cold. Very cold. Though I was wearing gloves, I had to limit the use of my trekking poles because they exposed my hands to the elements. When we were moving, the cold was uncomfortable but tolerable. When we stopped for a short rest, my body started shaking. At one point, I asked a fellow trekker if we could cuddle for a few minutes and share our body heat.
This was the challenge of Kili, different from any other endurance challenge I’ve faced. It was not the fitness required that made it difficult. It was the fatigue and the cold, intensified by labored breathing in the thin air that tested my mental fortitude. There was a moment about halfway up the seeming never-ending switchbacks that I thought to myself, “Man was not made to be on mountains like this.” Yet there I was. I could hear the sound of my fellow trekkers pausing to vomit. Feeling better, they got back in line and continued on their way.
Our guides were wise. At just the right moments they would sing, all of them, in harmony. They sang in English and Swahili, old hymns and spirituals and the occasional pop song. Their voices lifted our spirits. At times, it was a transcendent; my body trembling in the wind-blown cold, my mind wavering between determination and doubt, the infinite depths of glittering night sky blanketing us from horizon to horizon, our guides singing to us Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.
I’m near the lead guide when calls out, “Do not give up. I can see the top!” I knew we had to be getting close. The horizon was glowing. The sun was about to make its appearance. After five-and-a-half hours, the long journey into night was almost over.
There was a release of emotion when we stepped onto the crater rim at Gillman’s Point. Each person arrived to hugs and tears. Our guides poured cups of hot tea to revive us. The joy of reaching this point, of no longer climbing in the darkness, was euphoric. The sun broke the horizon, and I got my first peek into the snow-covered crater. I will be a sight I never forget.
The thrill of the moment was short-lived. The realization dawned that we were not finished. We had summited the crater rim, but Uhuru Peak, the highest point on Kili, at 19,340 feet, was on the opposite side of the crater rim. We still had a ways to go.
If I’m honest, I could have been talked out of continuing. It felt like an accomplishment getting to where we were. Some did choose to head down at that point, but 11 of us soldiered on. The path of gravel and rock turned to snow and ice about a third of the way. And though the sun was up, the cold and wind had not relented. We staggered forward. Each step was a grind. It took another 90 minutes, but eventually, we looked up and saw the signpost. “Congratulations. You are at the Roof of Africa.”
We waited for our turn to take pictures. I put a smile on my face. Our group crowded together to document the moment. Once the cameras were down, we turned to our guides and told them to get us off this mountain.
The descent was fast. It took about three hours. Most of the time made up by avoiding the switchbacks and sliding down the long scree slopes. It was skiing with our feet, a tiring exercise for the legs, but much faster. And we were down for faster.
I arrived back at my tent mid-morning. The summit trek had been a 10-hour ordeal. Out of the wind into the warmth of my sleeping bag, my body rested, and my mind tried to process what just happened.
Our hiking for the day was not over. We ate lunch at around 1pm then set-off for a three-hour hustle to our camp for the night on the south side of the mountain. There we were able to sit in the warmth of the sun, out of the wind, and at a lower elevation. The white-capped rim visible in the distance, I kept thinking, “I was there this morning.”
The next day, we experienced the ritual tipping ceremony. Our guides and porters sang songs, and in the form of tips we thanked them for sharing their mountain with us and expressed our gratitude for their kindness and help. The tips were divided among the crew allocated to individuals based on their responsibilities.
We ended our trek with a 12-mile descent through beautiful moorland and rainforest. I couldn’t wipe the silly smile off my face when I turned the corner and saw the gate exiting the park. It was over. Our time on the mountain had come to an end. We bought cold beers at the gift shop and toasted to our time on the mountain. A lager never tasted so good.
It has been nearly a month since I was on Kili. I’ve thought about it every day. I’m reminded of something Jesus said about faith that can move mountains. In my experience, the only thing moving mountains is the massive tectonic plates beneath the earth’s crust. Perhaps he meant that with faith you can move through mountains. You can transcend the immovable obstacle, ascend to its sun-kissed summit, and feel the Spirit alive in you once again. That is the power of the mountain. That was Kili for me.
In just a few weeks, if all goes according to plan, I will be breaking camp slightly after midnight, in below freezing temperatures and dizzying thin air, to begin the final push to Uhuru Peak, the highest point on Mount Kilimanjaro. I’ve been anticipating this moment for months. I’ve spent more time at REI than Target purchasing supplies and clothing. I paid a visit to the travel doctor to get my shots and malaria medicines. I’ve gone through my packing list a ridiculous number of times to be sure I’m not missing anything. I'm ready.
This past Sunday I trecked the 10.5-mile round-trip hike up Mt. Baldy, a popular 10,000+ foot peak in Southern California. This was an opportunity to test new gear, spend a little time at altitude, and think about what the perfect playlist might be for the trip. (I’m leaning towards sticking with classical music. Something without words, something that conjures the feeling of scale and awe.) The hike was great, even the section of the trail called the “Devil’s Backbone” - because of the narrow path with steep drop-offs – rewarded with the sweeping views of the desert in the distance.
After Kilimanjaro, I’ll spend a few days on Safari which raises an important question that I’ve spent a good deal of time pondering: Will I get eaten by a lion? I’ve concluded that, no, it is unlikely that a lion will eat me. That said if the unlikely happens…what a way to go! Sure, it’s messy – definitely a closed casket funeral - but people will be telling my story for years to come:
“Did you hear what happened to the Davis boy?”
“He lived out in California, right? Worked in entertainment?
“Eaten by a lion.”
“You don’t say.”
“Simba got him.”
“Hey Frank, did you hear this!? Gerald says the Davis boy was lion eaten by a lion!”
“You don’t say!”
(In the stories in my head, people still say, “You don’t say!”)
As you can see, I’ve had too much time to think about these scenarios. Fortunately, I won’t have to wait much longer.
I’m still raising funds for safe drinking water, sanitization, and hygiene education. When I arrive in Tanzania, I will be visiting areas that will be supported by the donated funds. It is easy to give at my fundraising site: http://causetrek.compassion.com/nathandavis I will provide a full report on the safe water projects our donations are supporting when I return.
My next post will likely be after the trip. Stay tuned for pictures, descriptions, and accounts of the journey.
Here is proof that I made it to the top of Mt. Baldy.
It is fitting that this week Weezer released a cover of the classic Toto song “Africa.” (listen here) I’ve been listening to it on repeat; not only is it a great song, but it is an excellent soundtrack as I prepare for my journey to Africa.
In two months, I’ll be traveling to Tanzania to trek to Uhuru Peak, the roof of Africa, on Mount Kilimanjaro. This is something I’ve wanted to do since I saw the IMAX film about the mountain 16 years ago. There is an allure to it; the largest free-standing mountain in the world, a snow-capped peak on the equator, an ancient volcano formed a million years ago.
Now, it is finally beginning to feel like the journey is close at hand. I’ve been accumulating my gear piece-by-piece and keeping my fitness level up by running and hiking the local mountains. The trek will cover 44 miles, but it is not the distance of the journey that will be the biggest challenge. The thin air at 19,340 feet is the wildcard factor that I cannot prepare for. There is no way to know exactly how my body will respond to the altitude, but that is part of the adventure, the unknowing and the perseverance required to overcome the challenges.
The promise of a trip of a lifetime is not the only reason I’m embarking on this journey. I am doing this trek to raise funds to provide clean drinking water, safe sanitation, and hygiene education for people in Tanzania and in other developing countries. I’m committed, with my fellow trekkers, to raise at least $1,500 for Compassion International’s WaSH (Water, Sanitation, Hygiene) fund. But $1,500 is the minimum. I want to raise at least $2,000.
For so many families in developing countries, the family facet is not a spigot in the kitchen but a long walk to a stream or well. The U.N. estimates that in developing countries, women and girls — who do 90 percent of all water and food gathering — walk an average of 3.7 miles daily to collect water and even then the water is not always safe for drinking.
The issue is not just the provision of safe drinking water. Adequate sanitation and hygiene are vital to preventing the spread of disease. When children are sick, they miss school. When parents are sick, they lose work. Access to safe water and sanitation is one of our key weapons in the battle to release communities and families from poverty.
Would you please consider making a donation to this cause? It is simple and tax deductible. Head over this my fundraising site http://causetrek.compassion.com/nathandavis and click the "Donate Now" button.
I am covering all costs for the trip. 100% of your donation will be used to help provide clean drinking water, healthy sanitation, and hygiene education.
I will be posting updates about my travels here. Be sure to come back later and follow my journey to the Roof of Africa. Until then, please donate :)
It’s mid-February, that time of the year when stores fill with red plastic hearts, red enveloped cards, red foil-wrapped chocolates, and red blush-inducing underwear. It is an annual reminder that red has never been my color, Saint Valentine has never been my guy, and cupid is just a naked baby. In elementary school, when we exchanged Valentines with classmates, I went to great lengths to remove all the cards that said, “Be my Valentine” because I was too shy and self-conscious about declaring interest to a girl. All the girls in my class got a card from me with a pizza eating Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle on it that said, “You’re Mondo to the Max!”
This year I will face the fact that I’m 38 years old, and I am still single. Over the last decade and a half, I’ve watched as nearly all of my close friends have married and entered their child-rearing years. All the while, I keep saying “someday.” Some people assume that I must be gay or something. Honestly, this doesn’t bother me too much. If I were gay, I would say I’m gay, but I’m not gay. I’m just single.
My singleness is not the result of a lack of trying. I’ve done my fair share of asking. Friends have set me up with people they know. I’ve spent too much time online, swiping left and right in what is a miserable human cattle-call numbers game called online dating. And yet here I am. The Rolling Stones were right: You can’t always get what you want.
I do occasionally experience an elevated heart rate (I won’t call it a panic attack) at the thought that one day I will die alone in a nursing home and nobody will know who I am. I imagine there will be a Filipino nurse named Grace that will take care of me in my final days. She’ll come into my room and ask me how I’m doing. She’ll make small talk by telling me about her kids and how they’re growing up so fast. She’ll ask me if I want something to drink and how the temperature is in the room. I will reminisce to her about the places I lived and people I met there. She will say “how interesting” and wonder who I am. On the day I pass from this world, she will go home, and her family will ask her why she is so sad. She will say, “Mr. Davis passed away today. He was a nice man and told interesting stories.” Her family will say, “That’s too bad.” And she will say, “Yes, yes it is.” (Okay, I’ve probably put too much thought into this.)
But being single has its advantages. In fact, there are many reasons why I’m grateful that I’ve been “#blessed” with an extended season of singleness.
My taxes are easy. Without dependents, everything is more straightforward. In fact, I've already finished my 2017 taxes and collected my refund. This perk extends to other grown-up decisions like choosing insurance, a healthcare plan, or a doctor. Easy peasy.
I can do stuff. I need not ask anyone for permission to go out with friends nor do I have to puzzle through logistics to make a night out happen. If I want to go out, I go out. If I don’t want to go out, I don’t go out. If I want to see a movie, I see the movie. If I want to go to a concert, I go to the concert. It’s that simple.
I can travel. Travel is not impossible with others in your life, but it’s a lot easier if you’re rolling solo. The freedom to spontaneously travel is one of singleness’s greatest gifts, especially for someone who loves to travel as I do. No negotiations about where to go. If a place captures my imagination, I go there.
I can take more risks. I doubt I would have been bold enough to move my life to California without a job and without knowing anyone who lived here if I had a family to provide for. My first few years in LA were tough. Being single allowed me to endure those challenging times and get to where I am today.
I have time to do lots of fitness-y things. Being single has given me the time and resources to stay in relatively good shape and pursue fitness goals, whether that’s running marathons or racing triathlons. With no one waiting for me at home, I can take the extra time to hit the gym, take that yoga class, or go for a run.
I get 8 hours of sleep every night. That’s right; I get eight hours of uninterrupted sleep almost every night. It’s how I’ve kept my youthful glow :) If I don’t get a full night of sleep, it’s by choice and usually because I’m doing something awesome.
But here is the essential truth of my singleness “situation”: my life has no lack of love. Nothing is missing in my life, and there is no one out there who will “complete” me. Sorry Jerry McGuire, but that is a bunch of hogwash. I have felt the abundance of love in my life from family and friends, enough to last me lifetimes. I do not suffer from a lack of anything.
I think love can be illustrated with simple math equations:
1 + 1 = 2 In this equation, two singles partner together, through mutual respect and selflessness, to make a something greater. Two is better than one.
1 – 1 = 0 In this equation, two singles take from one another. When this happens, both are left empty in the end.
In the equation of love, I’d rather be a 1 than a 0.
I love New Years. The whole idea of starting over with a clean slate and a new focus is something that works for me. Each New Year (and birthday, now that I think about it) forces me contemplate the great equalizer and most precious of commodities: time. We are all subject to the tick-tock, that steady march. We can dig in our heels with fits of denial, but it will do no good. Time is impartial to our demands. Best we get on board and appreciate its gift. The passing of time makes life valuable and what we do with it, our greatest responsibility.
For 2018 I have three resolutions. These resolutions are more directional than a list of things to accomplish. They are a framework for how I will invest my time, a thrust, a map sketched on the back of a napkin, a motivational tailwind that says, “let’s go in this direction and see what happens.”
I got an inspired start to the book back in November, but there is still so much further to go. Finishing the novel feels so incredibly daunting that the mere thought of it crushes me with insecurity and self-doubt. “If only I were smarter, more eloquent with words… The language arts was never my forte. I was more of a math and science guy.” These are the gremlins that lurk in my mind when I sit down at my computer to write. Yet, I know I must write this story. It has been with me twelve years and the only way to move on is to write it down and send it into the world. I have productive days and days when I only get a couple of sentences written. I’ve learned, in the short time I’ve been working on it, that the more I show up, the less of a struggle it becomes. I don’t know if I will finish the novel this year, but I will meet it each day. I will do my part and hope the great Muse meets me when I’m there.
It has been two years since my trip to India. I’ve been stateside since, but this year I plan to change that. I am one who must travel to far off lands. I get restless if I don’t. This world – its people, its landscapes, its history – is so fascinating, beautiful, and wonder-filling that a piece of me feels lost when I can’t explore. So this summer I’m going to Tanzania. I will spend a day with my Compassion sponsored child, Nicolaus; then I will embark on a six-day trek to the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro, the roof of Africa, and back. I will cap-off the trip with a few days on safari in the Serengeti. I will pay 100% of the cost of the trip myself, but I will be raising money for a clean water project in Tanzania as an effort to give back to its people. I’m putting you on notice; I will be asking for your generous donations soon.
I have a contemplative soul. I prefer to listen and observe. I work out my struggles not by talking about them, but by reflecting on them. I loathe small talk (but appreciate those who are good at it). I can spend a lot of time by myself and often my first impulse is to do things by myself - movies, dinner, hikes, etc. This year (and every year for that matter) I want to invest in people. I want to be intentional about spending quality time with friends, old and new, and family. If time is our most precious commodity, I think giving it to others is the best way to let someone know they matter.
I wish you and yours a happy and adventurous New Year!
My family came to visit last week. It was the first trip to California for my little niece and nephew. They had heard about this legendary place where Uncle Nathan lives, but being not-yet five and not-yet three-years-old, they had no concept of where this mythical land was that I would disappear to after visiting for the holidays. That was until last week. But it wasn’t just sunny California they got to experience. I took them to the “Happiest Place on Earth,” Disneyland.
Trying to explain Disneyland to a 4-and-a-half-year-old who has never been is harder than it sounds. I told her Disneyland is the place where the princesses live. She looked at me skeptically. How do all the princesses live in the same place? Don’t they all have castles?
I explain it another way. “Disneyland is a park.” I see the recognition in her eyes. “But there are no slides or jungle gyms.” The recognition fades. “There are rides that tell stories of the princesses and other characters. You watch the story sort of like how you watch a movie, but the ride tells the story using real characters - but not real people, robot people called animatronics.”
I see the questions surfacing. “So the princesses aren’t real?”
“The princesses are real people, I mean, they are played by real people. So is Mickey, Minnie, and Goofy. You can meet them when you’re not on a story ride with robot people.”
I give up trying to explain it. “We’re going to Disneyland to see fireworks and eat ice cream.” She beams. That she understands.
But Disneyland, I’ve come to see, is not just a place to watch fireworks and electrical parades or a place to excuse your diet for a day or practice the spiritual act of patience while standing in a queue. For all the talk of magic and dreams and imagination, it more than that. It is a place we go to learn how to face our fears.
The first ride we took my niece and nephew on was Alice in Wonderland. They had been watching the animated film and were familiar with the story, so when we mentioned there was something with Alice they latched onto the idea. (Actually, my niece latched onto the idea. My nephew latched on to any idea that his older sister liked.)
The ride is simple enough. We sat securely in our vehicles and entered the world of Alice’s Wonderland. We encountered the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat, and Tweedledee & Tweedledum. It was all innocent enough until the ride went dark and the Queen of Hearts appeared, frightfully declaring, “Off with their head!” My niece buried her face into my brother’s torso. She would remain like that for rest of the ride only occasionally peeking up to see what she might be missing.
After debarking the vehicle at the ride's conclusion, we asked my niece what she thought. “Did you like it?”
“Yes.” She said timidly. “But it was a little scary.”
In an effort build up my niece’s ride confidence, our next adventures were Dumbo, the Tea Cups, Casey Jr., and the Carousel - rides with no dark parts, no surprises, their paths transparent by the light of day. She liked those rides.
But there was no escaping the dark rides. Eventually, my niece would have to face them again. We asked her if she would go on Snow White. (We didn’t tell her the actual name of the ride is “Snow White’s Scary Adventures”) She was reluctant. “It might be scary.” We knew it was scary but coaxed her on with the promise of a princess balloon if she was brave. She summoned her courage and rode the ride. When she exited, she was a bit apprehensive. “I liked it, but it was a little scary.”
Over the next few days, we rode more “light” rides and “dark” rides. As my niece's bravery was tested, her joy grew. After riding Peter Pan and Pinocchio, she exited with a smile gleefully recalling the funny parts, not the scary parts.
On the second day, while practicing patience, I overhead an anxious teenage girl tell her friends that she was going to ride the California Screamin’ roller coaster for the first time today. She warned them. “It’s going to get real.”
This, for me, is part of the magic of Disneyland. Sure it is a celebration of family and optimism, a celebration of story, creativity, and magic. But it is also a testing ground, a place where children (and adults) can learn to face their fears with their family and friends by their side. Where kids are rewarded for bravery with a princess balloon, ice cream, and a fireworks show.
It is an introduction to one of life’s truths: the path we travel is not always illuminated by the light. There will be dark and scary times, moments when it “gets real.” But with your family and friends by your side, you will be okay.
The next time my niece visits Disneyland there will be more tests – The Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, Star Tours - a little darker, a little scarier, a little more thrilling. Those tests of courage will come in due time, and her family will be there with her when it does.
The screenplay I’m working on, A Eulogy for the Believer, deals directly with the subject of religious faith and the enigma of belief (a phrase I first heard from philosopher/theologian Peter Rollins). The script is inspired by my experiences, but the story itself is completely fictional.
The subject matter is risky because it can stir strong opinions. My objective with the screenplay (and with this post) is not to insist upon you an argument for or against belief, but to simply tell a story and let the story speak for itself.
I grew up in the rural Midwest, where my life revolved around the three pillars of family, church, and school. I was raised Christian. My family never missed a day of church. Church attendance, like school, was never optional.
The church played a huge role in my upbringing and very much informed my identity as a youth. I was an active member of the youth group. I went on all of the youth retreats and rallies. At my public High School, I was active in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. I attended the teen bible study that met before school. I prayed around the flagpole. In my high school class ring, I had a cross etched in the stone.
When I graduated High School, my friends went to college and partied. I went to a Christian college and studied the Bible. I graduated four years later with a degree in preaching. At the time, I was a fervent believer, and I thought I’d spend the rest of my life in vocational ministry.
My faith at this time could best be described as “certain.” I studied the bible and apologetics. I was confident that God’s word had all the answers to our deepest questions. And I was pretty good at answering people’s questions about God.
Then an unexpected gift arrive, and as a result, my faith began to unravel.
While attending a church conference in Seattle, I came across a film festival. It was my first interaction with the film industry. The town I grew up in had a two-screen movie theater and a Family Video where we rented VHS tapes to watch over the weekend. Hollywood could have been on a different planet.
At this film festival, I made a startling discovery: it was regular ordinary people with a passion for storytelling that made movies. I was captivated so much, that I went back a second day to learn more. When I left Seattle, there was stirring in my soul and desire to find out more about the craft of filmmaking.
When I returned to New Hampshire, where I was living at the time, I did some research. I discovered that the New York Film Academy offered 30-day intensive filmmaking course in Boston during the summer. I yearned to go.
The problem was, I was broke. The church I was working at wasn’t paying me a salary. I was living on the support of friends and family. I worked a part time job driving a wheel chair van to help make ends meet. My income was less than $9K that year. The filmmaking program cost several thousand dollars. I was convinced that film school was beyond my means, so I kept the desire to go to myself.
Then one Sunday afternoon I got a call from the church administrator. She asked me to swing by the church the next day. She said she had something for me. The next day, I went to the church and she handed me a check for $3,000. She said someone in the church had gifted it to me. There were no strings attached. I could use the money however I wanted. I used the money to go to film school. The giver wished to remain anonymous. To this day, I do not know who gave me the money.
At film school, I discovered a new passion: storytelling. The language of storytelling, specifically visual storytelling like filmmaking, made sense to me. It was my soul language, just like music, poetry, cooking, or yoga is the soul language for some, visual storytelling was my soul language. It is how I make sense of the world. Rhetoric will only get you so far. Eventually, you have to stop the rhetoric and tell a story. Jesus understood this.
My film school experience changed the course of my life and my faith. My belief system at the time - the narrative I had constructed about the world and my place in it - worked well as long as I was surrounded by people who believed the same things and I had limited contact with people with different worldviews. Film school introduced me to a whole new world of people.
After film school, I moved to Boston and then eventually to Los Angeles. Along the way, I became friends with people who were very different from me. They found my story as intriguing as I found theirs and over time, I began to see the world through a more grand, beautiful, messy lens. I became friends with social liberals, atheists, agnostics, Muslims, and members of the LGBT community. Friendship changes everything. That is why we are implored to love our enemies. Start with love and the tone of the conversation changes dramatically. I had to reexamine what I believed.
Over the next several years, I began a process of deconstructing my faith, of unbelieving everything to find out if there was anything left worth believing. The culmination of my deconstruction came when I was sitting on a plane reading an article about the discovery of the bones in the North African desert. They were the bones of a sea creature that lived hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of years ago. It was incredible to read about and struck wonder in me.
The article was also very troubling because it did not fit with my narrative for the world. If this was true – and it certainly appeared to be true - what else did I believe that was wrong? I put down the magazine, and a new thought emerged: I don’t think I believe anymore. It was the first time in my life that I thought I might be an atheist. It was terrifying.
This was an ugly time for my faith. I went from sitting in the front row of church with my hands in the air to sitting in the middle pews with my hands in my lap to standing against the back wall with my arms crossed to not attending at all. And worst of all, I became cynical.
My path back to faith started with the Bible. I decided to reread it. This time I would read it without any commentary. I would let the Bible speak for itself. I started a “read the Bible in one-year” plan, and three years later I finished it. I found that the Bible did not hold up to my old way of believing, but it held up beautifully to a new way of believing.
The Bible is the messy, imperfect story of humankind's wrestling, reaching, longing for God. The protagonists of the stories didn’t always get it right. Not everything in the Bible reflects the heart and will of God. Jesus, the Christ, remained the most compelling part of the narrative. He brought hope and light and a new way of living in the world with his message about the Kingdom of God.
I started attending a different church. Sitting in the sanctuary with sunlight pouring through stained-glass stories, with a pipe organ declaring and robed choir singing hymns of faith that have been sung for centuries. The rhythms of the liturgy provided a space for me to start to allow the beauty and mystery of faith back into my life.
After years in a spiritual wilderness, I began to emerge again. I let go of my cynicism and made peace with my constant companion, doubt. God is dead. Long live God.
I also made peace with my conservative Evangelical upbringing. I am grateful for the wonderful people that are a part of this faith tradition and are still a part of my life. I’m thankful for my upbringing and the path it put me on. But I’ve let go of the fundamentalism that hinders the path of love, compassion, justice, and peace.
The change in my faith came at a cost. The opposite of faith isn’t doubt. It is certainty. And I lost my certainty. I lost a God I could understand and diagram on a piece of paper. Honestly, there are days I’m not sure what I believe. I’m okay with that. I lost a little courage. Before, I took a lot more risks because I longed to live a life of complete dependence on God. Now my brain takes over and I tend to over-analyze things. I’m still working on that.
But in the process of losing and finding my faith again, I’ve gained much. I found a greater capacity for empathy. I would rather serve my Lord recklessly near the gates of hell than sit comfortably on his lap while the world goes to hell.
I gained a more profound wonder for the world around me. I find God in the beauty of creation, in the perplexity of science, in the nuance of art, in the subtlety of a good story, in the common humanity of those around me. And though I lost a God I could understand and diagram on a piece of paper, I found a God so much bigger, awe-inspiring, wondrous, and worthy.
I have learned to delight in the mystery of God and in doing so, I found my faith. My soul stirs again with passion and commitment to this loving God. And from time to time, my lips still utter Hallelujah.
For the past four years, I’ve been the head mentor for an organization called Young Storytellers where I lead their script-to-stage program at an elementary school in Burbank. The program is simple enough: ten fifth grade students, chosen by their teachers, are paired with an adult mentor, and over the course of seven weeks we teach them the basics of storytelling and screenwriting. We drill into them that every good story has a beginning, middle, and an end. Stories take place in a setting. They have a protagonist that wants something, a goal, but the goal is not easily achieved. Obstacles get in their way. Sometimes the obstacles are people, called antagonists. The story builds to a climax, the most exciting part of the story, and then resolves when we learn if the hero achieved his or her goal. Usually, the story conveys a lesson, either for the characters or the audience.
The culmination of the program is the Big Show. After the stories are written, we invite professional actors to perform the scripts on stage in front of their classmates, family, and friends.
While I’m proud of all the kids that participate in the program, this past Spring session had one especially memorable student. Kristian was shy. That’s not unusual. A lot of the kids are shy when we first start. But over the weeks, the kids warm up, and before long it’s hard to get them to stop talking. But Kristian was different. He was a serious kind of quiet. During the first couple weeks, he barely participated.
On week three, his mentor told me he wanted to speak to me. I sat down with him and asked him what’s up? He said he didn’t want to do the program. He didn’t want to write a story. He didn’t want to do the Big Show. He was adamant, “I wasn’t asked if I wanted to do this.” I sensed it was the Big Show that was the stumbling block. He didn’t want to be on stage. I get it. Public anything can be scary and downright terrifying for some.
I told him not think about the Big Show. We’ll figure that out later. I encouraged him with Young Storytellers mantra that “Every child has a story worth telling.” I tried to convince him that it was important that he write a story. I used phrases like “unique voice” and “original ideas, ” but it didn’t inspire him. It was tough going. “I don’t know” was the answer to every question I asked him about his ideas for a story. I’d never had a kid not finish the program, but I thought to myself he might be the first.
We have agreements in Young Storytellers that we come up with in week one. The agreements cover a range of topics that we think will make our time successful, such as don’t be late and treat other ideas with respect. It also addresses the content of our stories. We all agree that the students will write an original story. They can’t copy a story from a book, movie, or video game. We also agree not to use violence to solve problems. Characters cannot physical fight their way out of their problems.
Week 4. Kristian’s mentor asked him if he’d talked to his parents about participating in Young Storytellers. He said he told his mom he didn’t want to do it, but his mom said he had to.
By this time, most students have the logline and an outline for their story and are beginning to write their scripts. Kristian was still working on an idea. At the end of the session, he had his idea: a war story based on his favorite video game. Sigh. I decided I wasn’t going to tell him that his story was in conflict with our agreements. At least he was participating, sort of. We went around the room, and I asked on a scale of 1-10, how do you feel about your story. There were a lot of 9s, 9.9s, and a couple of 10s. Kristian said 0.
Week 5. Kristian had resigned to the fact that he was not getting out of this, so he told his mentor that he would write the story, but would not do the Big Show. Baby steps. As they worked on the script, he kept asking about page count. He wanted to know how close he was to being finished. His mentor wisely cheated the margins and format to make it appear that he had written more than he had. “See you’re already on page three. Let’s keep going!” His mentor was great. She matched his energy with the opposite energy. When he was quiet, she was encouraging. When he thought his idea was stupid, she thought it was great. Her positivity was contagious. I caught him smiling a couple of times. At the end of the session, we again went around the room. I asked the kids to tell me a color that best describes how they feel about their stories at this point. There were several reds, yellows, and blues. Kristian said black.
Week 6. Kristian and his mentor continued to work on his story. I see that he is talking more. His “I don’t know” knee-jerk answer was replaced with some “maybe this.” I let his mentor work her magic. At the end of the session, his mentor told me that he came in today with an idea that changed his story in a clever way. I got excited and thought to myself we might get a story out of him after all.
Week 7. We played a “guess the movie tagline” game. Kids vs. Adults. Kristian got the final answer correct and won the game for his classmates. I’d never seen him smile so wide. It was a major confidence boost. At the end of the session, his mentor was all smiles. “We did it. We finished the script.”
We talked as a group about the Big Show. I explained that each of them would go on stage with their mentor and answer the question, “What inspired your story?” I glanced at Kristian. He had no reaction. I couldn’t tell if that was a good thing or bad thing.
The Big Show. To be honest, I was a little nervous he wouldn’t show. A sick day maybe? But there he was, on time, with a new haircut. He dragged himself in with the look of a kid being dragged by his parents to the dentist office for a filling. His steps were slow and heavy. He collapsed in a folding chair. I decided that asking how he felt wouldn’t do any good. I knew he was nervous. He knew he was nervous. Why dwell on it?
We give the kids VIP badges to wear around their neck. It gives them exclusive access to the red carpet. And yes, we bring a red carpet. We introduce the young storytellers one at a time, and they get to strut down the red carpet to the cheers of their peers and bulb flashes of their mentors and family members taking pictures. I called Kristian’s name, and he came through the door. He offered a slight hand wave then hustled down the carpet.
I placed Kristian in the middle of the program so he wouldn’t have to go first or wait in agony until the end. The lights dimmed, and the show began. As the first story was being performed, Kristian’s teacher sat down beside me and whispered, “Did Kristian talk to you? He’s not going up on stage.” I was surprised to hear this. She went on, “He was in the principal’s office this morning. He was so stressed he was feeling sick. They made a deal that he wouldn’t have to talk and that he would watch the performance from behind the curtains.” I glanced over at Kristian, who was sitting with his mentor. “He looks fine,” I said.
Of course, I was concerned. I sneaked back and took a seat next to him. “You good?” Kristian nodded his head with the subtlety of one in deep focus. I returned to my seat next to his teacher. “I think he’s fine. Let’s see what happens.”
It came time for Kristian’s story to be performed. I watched in anticipation. He slowly climbed the stairs to the stage and took his place. Without a stumble or a hitch, soft-spoken but without a quiver in his voice, he introduced his script then took his place on stage to watch his story come to life by the actors. He nailed it.
His script was called War History, and it is a story about two brothers reading a history book about WWII. All they want is to know what happens next after the Germans attack a secret military lab. But they can’t finish the story because they have to go to school. In math class, they get caught trying to read the book and are sent to detention. Their history teacher is overseeing detention, and in a surprising reveal, the brothers realize their history teacher was in WWII. They don’t need the book. He was there! The story ends with the history teacher recounting to the boys, “There I was surrounded by German soldiers…”
At the conclusion of the performance, the audience cheered. Kristian took a short bow and made a beeline off the stage.
After the show, I told Kristian I was proud of him and I asked if he would do it again. He said no. I believed him.
We make kids do things they are scared of all the time. In our adult wisdom, we know it’s not that bad, and in the end, it will be good for them. But as we grow older, we let ourselves off the hook. We don’t have parents telling us we have to do things we’re scared to do. We take a pass.
What Kristian did was special. He stepped into a moment that terrified him, and he overcame it. In doing so, he became the hero of his own narrative. We can all learn from his example. Sometimes we have to stand up, take a deep breath, and say, “This is my story.”
Kristian and his mentor at the Big Show.
A WRITER KEEPING THE FAITH IN LOS ANGELES