Museums and Gravestones

As a teenager living for a brief time in Europe I was dragged through military museum after military museum, courtesy of my Dad who had fought in WWII. Suffering through all those boring exhibits did teach me one thing — character matters.

For example, there was the American Brigadier General who defied the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge. He had been informed by a German delegation that he should surrender, but he kept fighting. My Dad loved to tell the story, even with the slightly racy language of the officer’s response, and was thrilled when he was able to show my brothers and me the field in Belgium where this all took place. The names and dates are a bit foggy to me now, but the point is crystal clear: Don’t let the bullies intimidate you, and never give up.

Perhaps all those museums are what caused me to love history in college. I ended up a history minor simply by virtue of having enough courses under my belt. My Dad’s enthusiasm had rubbed off.

History can teach all kinds of lessons, but only if you’re paying attention. They say “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” This year the teacher was a 2,000 year old Roman wall in northern England – Roman Emperor Hadrian’s wall to be exact. I had never heard of it (so much for that history minor from Columbia University) but I soon discovered that this wall had separated the empire builders from the northern barbarians, as well as been a great way to get some taxes from the locals as they passed through.

All of this started when my husband told me he was going to walk Hadrian’s Wall in order to prepare for a group he was taking there next year. I asked if I could join him. Not to do the walking per se, but to experience all that history, — and to have time alone with him. I must not have been thinking clearly because I really don’t like walking. Mind you it’s better than running, but then I simply don’t run — I leave that to all the many athletes in my family. But, as often happens, I somehow convinced myself that I could do this, in fact, that I wanted to do this.

“Which do you prefer, going up or coming down” my husband asked me very matter of factly a few hours into our third day of the walk. “Prefer? There is no “prefer.” I replied grumpily.  “I hate them both.”

We had finally made it to a trail that runs alongside the actual wall. This was very exciting for the first hour or two. After all it’s why I had wanted to do this in the first place. And, yes, the views were stunning. Then it got a bit old, and then it got downright annoying. In much the same way comedian Mitch Hedburg (my husband’s favorite) points out that pancakes are exciting at first and then you just get sick of them.

This part of the walk is definitely more of a climb . . . much more. I love the countryside, the sheep, the wild flowers, the impressively maintained paths, the really old wall. I get it, I think. But I can’t help feel sorry for my poor aching feet, and wonder if everyone else we pass is as tired as I am. I have accomplished very difficult physical challenges in my life but I just can’t find the magic key for this particular kind of activity.

Back home in my professional world of college academia where I teach dance and am married to a coach I am surrounded by athletes who think nothing of running straight up, and down, mountains, and dancers who seem to have unlimited stamina. But I am not one of them. Is that a crime? My husband assures me it is not, but I wonder.  I have a nagging suspicion that my boys (both serious long distance athletes, along with their Dad) think less of me for this obvious weakness. It comes out in not so subtle remarks like, “Oh Mom, you could never hike those mountains in the Alps. It’s hard! You’d have to train.” Yes, I know, and most of me doesn’t even want to hike those bloody Swiss alps but another part of me does, or, more precisely, thinks I should. But why? Why do I have to be a great hiker?

Perhaps (if I try hard enough) I can blame it on that role model of a Brigadier General my Dad so admired who refused to give up. Or on all the Roman soldiers I’m learning about who walked for days and weeks with ridiculously heavy packs on their backs, and never gave up. My honest reaction, though, is just to feel sorry for them and wish they had had a car, or a jeep. Much like my reaction to my own situation…

The fact is I am not a great athlete any more. I actually have no right to be. Having been a professional ballet dancer I know what it takes to stay in really good, do-whatever-you-want-shape, and I don’t want to. So why should I feel bad about that? I still dance but for very different reasons than when I was twenty-five. And, ironically, the choices I make these days make me much happier than when I was completely focused on my training and physical abilities.

But there it is . . . we want it all.

Emperor Hadrian didn’t build the wall, he had his legionnaires build it, and they did an excellent job. I doubt he could have withstood the physical strain his men underwent. Anyway, whether he could have or not it wasn’t his role. There comes a time when we should step back and let others take the lead, and the heat. A coach-friend of my husband’s points out that “role definition and role acceptance is the key to happiness.” I am starting to see what he means. It’s not that I can’t still be active and vital, but it does mean I can measure my success with a different yardstick: The yardstick of character rather than just physical prowess.

The symmetry and strength of the wall speak to me of discipline, of order, and of integrity. I can still have those in my life even if I can’t walk a nineteen mile day effortlessly. The benefit of experience is that we gain a new perspective. We find value in things that we ignored before, or didn’t even dream existed. The philosopher Seneca knew this, so did many others.

I just started a book I bought in England about St. Oswald, something I would never have done twenty years ago. Now I am fascinated. Why? Maybe because I have learned that everything has meaning if you look at it correctly. Even a “Dark Age” king turned saint who I had never heard of. Who knows what I will learn from his life and times.  It’s a different kind of adventure.

On this latest adventure I decided to stay home on the fifth day and catch up while my husband did the walking without me. For me a catch up day typically means reading, praying, thinking, writing and, in this instance, walking around the village where we were staying. I found I didn’t need to be right next to a 2,000 year old Roman wall in order to appreciate the history and human drama of England. From my little porch I could see the gravestones in the church yard that had been there for centuries. I even had time to go look at them. The first one that was at all legible told a story in its names and dates.

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At the top was the husband who had died at the age of forty eight, then his wife who had died four years after him. Under the wife’s name were four more names and the year of their deaths…all before they were twenty-five — their children. I walked away, fighting back tears. How do you go on? How do you get up every day? Suddenly my concerns about not making the grade as a walker and athlete seemed ridiculous: Petty and self-centered. The real courage in life is moral courage. The willingness to get up every morning for another twenty years and support your spouse, who has also lost four children.

That’s what that American Brigadier General was really saying to the Germans, “I will not give up. Circumstances or intimidation can’t make me give up.” Or, in his actual words, “Nuts!”

Good for him and good for my Dad for making sure I knew that story. It is one more stone in the wall of all those who never gave up, be they Roman soldiers far from home or parents grieving for their children. May they all rest in peace.

Chaz WilcoxenEssays