Starting From Scratch

August, 1977.

“I don’t know how other folks get by, but there’s one thing that I’ve learned for fact. There’s a music you can only hear when you’re starting from scratch.” Roman Candle

During my college days, when resources were scarce for me, I would sometimes pack my suitcase in the morning and stash it in the bushes beside Peabody Hall for the day. When the day was done, I would take it wherever I had determined I would stay that night. If it were a Friday, I would head to the bus station (after buying some cheap snacks at Fowler’s grocery) and make the three-hour ride to be with my fiancee for the weekend in Charlotte.

Though times like this were difficult, I am forever thankful for what they gave me. There’s a resourcefulness, a sense of independence, and a general appreciation for the small things in life that becomes part of your outlook when you make it through a challenge.

Similarly, I came to regard books, magazines, and the radio as a lifeline to something bigger in the world. When I would go to bed at night (even if the bed was a hiding place of sorts), I would listen to voices from far off, knowing that there was something bigger.

In 1980, I heard a late-night interview in which Larry King talked to Bill Rodgers, four-time winner of the Boston and New York marathons. On that night, I decided I wanted to take on the task of running 26.2 miles. Forward to 2015, when we were in Philadelphia for the marathon, and we saw Bill on the street. I told him that I had heard that interview and it was the reason I was there with him. He was pretty astounded that someone remembered it.

With the chatty and delightful Bill Rodgers in Philadelphia

nos·tal·gia Origin modern Latin (translating German Heimweh ‘homesickness’), from Greek nostos ‘return home’ + algos ‘pain.’

I try not to indulge too much in nostalgia. Baby boomers like myself are prone to taking sentimental journeys but I figure I’ve been there, done that. To me the good old days are now.

There is, however, an exception. When we are young, we have an acute sense of awareness, an ability to be present, borne mostly out of a combination of innocence, fear, and, if we’re lucky, poverty.

I was at my company’s conference last week in Orlando. The accommodations were amazing. I told my colleagues that I don’t think I will ever become callous to staying in a nice hotel. The notion that I can have a plethora of towels and pillows, that everything is so clean, and that the staff is dedicated to meeting my needs, is still beyond me.

John D. Rockefeller said, “Oh how blessed the young men are who have to struggle for a foundation and a beginning in life. I shall never cease to be grateful for the three and a half years of apprenticeship and the difficulties to be overcome, all the way along.”

Like Rockefeller, I will never cease to be grateful for what I learned during the times when I had no money. It led to foundational relationships, as I felt humbled and loved by those who gave to me. For example, Ellen, my manager at my part-time library job, let me borrow her red VW Beetle during the time of my father’s death. Later, she gave us a bedspread which, no kidding, we have on our bed this very evening and that was 35 years ago.

There was my neighbor Jay, who “helped” me build a little wooden footstool to give my mother for her birthday when I was about 10 years old.

And there were the high school friends who gave me clothes, often hand-me-downs from their fathers, which became a part of my wardrobe at school.

Though I now have more materially than I ever could have imagined when I was young, I still hear the music that was played when I was starting from scratch.

This essay is largely about a lack of money, but the good things that come from starting out as a novice on a journey are equally true when we taking on something new or something new again. After running for 44 years, I recently realized that I needed to go back to basics. I wrote in my journal “Running Rebirth” and began again with a new approach. It’s humbling and thrilling to realize that what once worked will now need to be rethought and redone.

If we are to remain engaged in our lives, we have to preserve a sense of gratitude and wonder. We need to have a beginner’s mind. And there must be a newness to our perception of life that transcends our chronological age. We can’t pretend we are soaring without a safety net. We can, however, continue to soar.

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