A brisk and cold breeze from the east washes away the clouds and their rain from the previous four days, and the mountains to the northwest stand clean, cloaked in winter white as sentries to a new year in Kabul, Afghanistan. It is Jumma, the streets are empty. Kabul River is running, albeit brown and strewn with litter. Everything is different, and everything is the same.
I have sought adventure all my life. When I was a boy it was deep in the forest, most often alone, pretending I was Daniel Boone or a soldier on reconnaissance. Later it was testing mortality, jumping from bridges into shallow rivers, driving fast, seeking new ways to feel. This brought me to the brink of complete disaster before I was even 18 years old, either through drugs or crime or alcohol. I lowered two friends into their graves, I stood behind bars shivering for the shame I had bestowed upon my ever-loving parents. I never broke a bone, not a stitch sewn, not a disease until much later, after such visceral smacks against life and society subsided.
How many disasters I averted unknowingly I can’t say. There are plenty enough I know about. I wonder how it was the young athletic woman following my lead and not I who, after climbing to the top of a great pyramid of Giza fell to her death. I think of the pickup truck full of armed and angry separatists in Mexico who gave up their search for me under the moonlight by the side of the road, the drunk who picked me up hitching rides in northern California who for some reason changed his mind, turned around on the dead end road he’d at first thought would be a good place to use the gun under his seat, or the approaching humpback whale that decided at the last second to dip beneath my skiff, sparing me the inhospitable Alaska waters. There are other places, St. Petersburg, Russia where the white night left me helpless in an alley with three thugs who scattered at the arrival of a menacing dog, or three quarters of the way up a Colorado cliff I could no longer climb, nor descend. I’ve fallen off the back of a moving van and by happenstance became aware of my tuberculosis in time to treat it. Here I begin my third year in Afghanistan, and all I have to bemoan is the periodic stomachache.
I don’t believe in knocking on wood, so I won’t start here. I mention these things because if you who read this and perhaps all my entries since April of 2009 are going to continue on this journey you should know more about who this character is that you are trusting at some level to tell you the truth. Of all the people who showered me with good tidings, tears of appreciation, and accolades as I made my way around the country giving talks this winter only one person landed upon the truth. It came at the very end of the journey. A librarian who had worked with one of the girls hugged me before saying goodbye and whispered one sentence into my ear. “You’re a lucky man,” she said.
The girls and I are home, now. We have been quickly absorbed into the collective life of the orphanage. Yet there are so many images so close to the surface. There was the time I found the three of them asleep together in one twin sized bed. I’ll never forget their faces upon our reunion inside the dreaded Dubai airport, nor their cheering for the Lion King fifth row center, or their depth of humility accepting a spontaneous and unprompted standing ovation by 450 middle school children whose mothers and fathers had been deployed to Afghanistan. There were pillow fights in hotel rooms, vicious rounds of card games, and times we held onto one another for strength and unity and celebration, a knotted circle of one singular hug, the four of us just before leaving Afghanistan at dusk in mid December, or at the feet of the Statue of Liberty, or one last time less than a week ago in Kabul airport, so thrilled to be back yet reveling in this long and life changing dream that was America, a dream none of us would ever be able to fully describe.
And yet I cannot safely say who it was more affected these past three and a half months, the girls or the thousands of people they touched, in homes, families, universities, churches, retirement communities, radio stations, middle and high schools, boardrooms, offices, newspapers, and even restaurants. It is, I think, a tossup. On a pure material level they raised almost $17,000 and recruited over 30 new sponsors of children and re-energized dozens of existing sponsors. On an emotional level there are an enormous number of hearts out there that have been deepened and empowered. People at MIT, Yale, Stanford, West Point, SUNY Albany and St. John’s universities have been touched. People at Google and Goldman Sachs have been touched. Most of all, three host families and all their relatives and friends have been profoundly joined in a great expansion of love and understanding and hope. They all carry the gift of these children’s spirits into the great American landscape and those spirits radiate in every corner, from New England to Colorado to Washington State to Washington D.C. to Florida, California, Louisiana, Maryland, New Mexico and New York. As for the girls, their enrichment is written in their eyes and upon their voices. They have already begun to share this enrichment with the other orphans, and have been greeted with openness and joy. The American experience belongs to all. We four are back to school, back to our routine. We are once again a part of the great big family that is AFCECO. Though we are no longer the center of the universe, though there will be some time of difficult transition, I can speak for the girls in saying we feel a greater sense of purpose when we find ourselves crammed into a mini van, off to soccer practice with twenty other less fortunate girls who radiate that same love, trust and humility toward us as Pashtana, Manizha and Sahar radiated for the Americans they met.
I come away from this winter’s experience with a great love and respect for human beings, exponentially more so than for their institutions. I leave you with four photos: the girls holding hands just before lifting off from Kabul; on the beach the first day in America; giving a presentation in D.C.; and on the ferry to Liberty Island. I also leave you with the poem the girls and their classmates learned on the first day of Leadership Workshop back in September 2010, before anyone knew what was to be their fate.
Each day in life is training, training for myself. Though failure is possible, living each moment, equal to anyone, ready for everything, I am alive, I am this moment, my future is here and now.
Thank you, for myself and for the three sitaras, all of you who gave so freely and unconditionally to the cause of believing in love and the human spirit.