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11 Ways Running is Like Learning a Foreign Language

Two accomplishments I feel rather proud of were accomplished in Africa. Here, I became a runner and here I learned a foreign language. Actually two: French and Somali. Both were incredibly hard and both changed the way I see the world. Amazingly, they have some things in common. Here are eleven ways that running is like learning a foreign language, in my case, Somali.

running and language

1. Its hard.

I thought I was going to die during my first mile-long run in Djibouti and I was already in relatively good shape from doing aerobics. At the end I put my hands on my knees and gasped. “People do this, like, for fun?!” Same with studying Somali. It was hard, required obscene amounts of time and strenuous effort.

2. Progress is slow and steady.

I added a few minutes to my runs each week and built endurance. A 5k turned into a 10k, turned into a half marathon, turned into three full marathons. But that took years. A grunted sentence in Somali, “Me like rice” turned into grammatically correct, multi-faceted sentences that include cultural knowledge as well as vocab, “I like rice that has been cooked on holidays and dyed pink and blue, with roasted lamb and hot sauce.”

3. There are pitfalls along the way.

Injuries, tripping over stones in the desert, getting lost while running in a new city. Mistakes in language usage that leaves one saying, “Do you want my husband?” instead of, “This is my husband.”

4. They change the way you see the world.

I now notice runners everywhere, I notice shoes. A guest leaves a pair of Asics by the door and I know she is a runner. I even know they are Asics. I see the world in terms of running trails and get to know new places while on my feet. Learning Somali has taught me new things about history and justice, camels and color and saying ‘Thank you,’ or not.

5.  They open up new communities.

I didn’t know people existed who use the word “bonk” in normal conversation or who eat Gu on purpose or who think nothing is wasted about four hours spent running solo or who don’t seem to want all their toenails. Not only have I met these people, I’ve become one of them. I didn’t know people who laughed back in their throat like Somalis or who could memorize entire poems and stories simply by listening or who would sweep and mop my house when I come back from time in the US simply because they cared about me. Now I call those people friends.

6. They are never done.

I can cross off a run for the day but I am never done being a runner. It is who I am now. I will never be fluent in Somali. I am now a Somali-language-learner.

7. They make you do embarrassing things.

Running in the hottest country in the world makes me sweat in unmentionable places. On the run things like farts, spit and other bodily fluids have been, um, encountered. Certain stories remain on the trail. Learning a language also brings up embarrassments. Giving speeches in broken Somali, being featured on YouTube under the title, “White Woman Speaks Somali!”, language mistakes (see #3).

8. They make you feel proud.

Not in a boastful, arrogant way. But they make you feel like you have accomplished something hard, worthwhile, satisfying. A marathon. The first novel read in the new language.

9. They draw strange looks from people.

Once at the end of a run in the hot season, a child saw me and was so frightened he tried to crawl onto the back of my guard, who was praying at the time. The kid screamed, “help me! help me!” When I asked the guard who the kid was he said, “I never met him before in my life.” When I speak Somali sometimes people have physically fallen to the ground in shock. Other times they simply stare. That happens a lot while I run, too.

10. They make muscles ache and make the muscles stronger.

My legs will never be the same. I’m no Paula Radcliffe but I think I’ve got some calf muscle that wasn’t there a decade ago. Don’t mess with my calves. Don’t mess with my uvula, either. Or whatever it is in my throat making those kh, q, c noises. The first few months speaking Somali made the back of my throat ache like my legs ached the first few weeks running.

11. They require support.

I needed the people who cheered me on during the marathons and other races, needed to see their faces and hear their cheers, needed to grab the Gu or the water bottle. I am so thankful they were there at the end, sometimes to literally catch me, that they were there while I trained. Biking alongside, taking care of the kids. I’ll never forget the chocolate-covered strawberries waiting for me at my front door when I got home from my first marathon, a surprise gift from my sister who lived states and states away. Learning language requires similar support, cheerleaders, encouragers, motivators. Maybe some fresh-baked chocolate chip cookie deliveries. People who notice the minutest increments of progress and who honor that.

Runners? Language learners?

Anything else the two have in common?

Global Trellis Cultural Challenge

Check this out! An upcoming challenge and conversation with yours truly, in April:

No matter where you are in the world these days Covid-19 has changed how you interact with a culture you love. Maybe you are currently displaced or maybe you are isolated.

You might find yourself wondering, “How do I connect with the culture?”

Enter the Global Trellis Culture Challenge. Because no matter where you are, you are somewhere. You are still engaged with a culture that is beautiful and messy. You are still able to learn. You can take breaks from the weight of this time, as you learn more about a place you love. This challenge is for you, right where you are.

The challenge includes three activities, with the freedom to participate in all or just some of each activity.

—The Culture Challenge Checklist contains ten ways to connect with the culture . . . and most can be done at home. (God knew!)

— Participate in a discussion with Rachel Pieh Jones (hey that’s me!) on culture

— Two Facebook Live parties with prizes

 

Are you up for the challenge and the ways God uses it to keep you culturally connected?

 

Join today.

 

Djibouti Jones COVID19 Diary, Episodes 1-6

What is happening in Djibouti in regards to the COVID19 pandemic?

I decided to process it out loud, every day, just a a brief glimpse.

Have a listen. Enjoy.

March 17. Connected.

March 18. It Is Here.

March 19. We Know How to Take Care of Each Other.

March 20. What is Hoarding? Plus, a Car Accident.

March 21. Do We Stay or Do We Go?

March 22. COVID19 Has Left Djibouti. Plus, a Special Guest.

Available for now on Spotify and Anchor. Coming soon to iTunes and Google Play.

 

Two Podcasts and an Essay

I’m pumped to share two podcast episodes with y’all and an essay.

Maybe we need a break from COVID-19 news?

Maybe we need to be thankful for things like podcasts and reading essays – things we can do while in isolation or quarantine to pass the time?

I know what it is like to be in isolation and it can be lonely or boring (though I almost never get bored!) and so maybe these things can help pass the time.

Stay safe, stay healthy, stay kind, stay compassionate, stay generous.

Here you go:

Creating Community in Djibouti, with Kristin Schell of The Turquoise Table podcast and book and community. She has such a lovely vision of creating space in our lives and physical areas to build community. I loved talking, she had wonderful questions focused on what it has been like to find and build community while living in a foreign country.

“Rachel’s story takes us on a beautiful journey from a high rise apartment complex in Minneapolis to a school in The Horn of Africa. Rachel’s story of creating community and connection is one of the most inspiring yet. Relationships that started in her own backyard led her family across the globe to Djibouti.

When she was just twenty-two years old and a new mother of twins, Rachel received hospitality from complete strangers, her Somali neighbors. Her immigrant neighbors befriended her — bringing her food and even offering to clean her house while she rested with the twins. Rachel was overwhelmed by their incredible friendship and a curiosity to know more about their home East Africa was born.

What transpires next is remarkable. Rachel and her family move from urban Minneapolis to a rural part of Somalia. Then to Djibouti. Kristin and Rachel talk about what it’s like to be a Christian in a country that is 99% Muslim and the incredible relationships she’s made with her neighbors. Rachel gives us a brief overview of the Muslim religion and piques our curiosity to learn more. After all, loving your Muslim neighbor is the same as loving your non-Muslim neighbor.”

Life at the Crossroads of Faith and Culture, with Amber McCullough at the Grace Enough Podcast. We dug deep into faith and and how I’m learning to love the stranger primarily through being the stranger. Amber was insightful and her questions made me think! Really enjoyed our conversation and I hope you do, too.

Today, Rachel talks about how living as a minority has increased her empathy toward the stranger and has ceased to label someone different as “NON.”

We talk about loving the stranger.

We talk about what she has learned from Muslim practices.

We talk about faith conversations and a deepening faith that is more about being with God and less about right theology and dogma

This conversation is one that will stretch you. It will lead you to ask questions of how and when and where to step into the uncomfortable places and stop assuming.

Pleasure and Pain, in The Smart Set, a magazine of Drexel University. This essay slightly terrifies me. It gets pretty vulnerable and personal. But I’m also kinda proud of it (if writers are allowed to say that). It shows how I’ve changed and grown, things I’ve learned, while living in the Horn of Africa. Specifically, things about the body, embodiment, contentment, strength, and being kind to our bodies. Here’s an excerpt, starting with the easier body parts…

Body: The organized physical substance of an animal or plant either living or dead, fullness and richness of flavor (as of wine), a mass of matter distinct from other masses (a body of water).

Merriam-Webster

I’ve thought a lot about my legs. I pinched the cottage cheesy bulge that oozed out from my shorts on sticky summer evenings when I sat on the pews in my childhood Baptist church sanctuary. I watched my legs swell during pregnancy. I flexed in front of the mirror when I became a runner and double-checked race photos to stare at my muscle definition. I’m slightly knock-kneed and the fourth toe of my right foot is slowly curling beneath my third toe. If I live to 90, they might meld together.

I’ve thought a lot about my nose. It is big and straight with a slight hook on the end. It is my maternal grandfather’s nose. I’ve picked it, pierced it twice, and broken it once. I needed surgery to fix the break and asked the doctor if, while in there, he could give me a cute little upturn at the end or maybe decrease the overall size. He laughed and put me under. I woke with two black eyes and a cast. Yes, a cast on my face. In high school. My friends in Djibouti tell me I have a beautiful, Arab nose, and this is one of my favorite things about being an expatriate. Not the appreciation for what I considered my worst feature, but the way culture offers fresh perspectives. Now that my grandfather has died, I’m thankful the doctor didn’t change my nose. I see my grandfather every time I look in the mirror.

I’ve thought a lot about my hair. Curly and blond. Perfect in the 1980s when I merely had to run a round brush through my bangs and voila, the frizzy poof my sisters spent hours trying to achieve. Not so perfect when I lived in Somalia and my hair was too slippery to hold a headscarf in place. When the scarf slipped, my curls sprang out, unruly and bold. My hair is neither perfect nor imperfect for Djibouti, next door to Somalia and where I live now. I’ve learned how to tie it up and I’ve learned to be comfortable with it flowing down. The trouble with hair in Djibouti is that mine falls out in handfuls, from the salty water in the shower, from the stress, from the extreme temperatures, constant sweat and sun, and from cancer.

I’ve thought about my breasts. I tried to hide them, tried to accentuate them, used them to feed children, wondered if they will eventually develop cancer and kill me. I was wrong about my breasts. It was my thyroid that got the cancer. It hasn’t killed me, yet.

The body as I saw it, called into question the premise I was raised to believe; that God saw what he had created and called it very good.

The body is weak, prone to breakdown and damage. It is vulnerable. It smells weird and makes awkward noises and doesn’t always look the way I want it to in skinny jeans, or any jeans. The body is infinitely varied among humans and all of us have hair and moles, sometimes hairy moles. We have crooked teeth and lopsided earlobes and butts that sag, jiggle, or form shelves behind us. Is this breakable vessel truly something sacred? Can this thing, capable of murder, theft, lying, abuse, lust, greed, pride, and cruelty be good?

There are other body parts I never gave much thought to until I lived in the Horn of Africa. Parts I earned, ignored, damaged, lost, and neglected. Parts I couldn’t imagine having a role in the deep, creative, beautiful goodness of being human.

But life here, in community with Muslim friends, in the steamy desert, in a world upside down from the world of my childhood, changed the way I look at and think about my body parts. It changed the way I thought about goodness, about the intricate handiwork implicit in the way we live and move and have our being…

The essay goes on to cover everything from hemorrhoids to uvulas, thyroids to skin, and even more personal parts, all of them good. Enjoy!

Travel Shame

I’m going to list my own travel shames and then I’m going to cast a whole lot of shame-blame. Won’t this be fun?

Here’s me when I fly

I pick my nose. All those painful crusty boogers? They have got to go. I use a Kleenex but I gotta get them out.

If there is gas, it will be passed. Sorry. Doesn’t happen often. Helps save time in the bathroom (see below: don’t take too long in the bathroom).

I pack too much in my carry-on bag sometimes. Not every time, but often it is way too heavy. Books. I’m an author and a reader. Its all books.

I get anxious. I try not to let it show and I sincerely think it is decreasing, finally. Anxious about making my connections, or about being on time for the very first flight. This means I am an early-arriver at the airport. I hate the stress of rushing. I also get anxious about finding a space for my roller-bag. I think this is because of Kenya. Anything you check runs a high, very high risk of being stolen. I do not trust the employees to leave my stuff alone. They won’t. They don’t. Experience speaking here. I get anxious about using the bathroom so I dehydrate myself. For this, I blame small, sketchy airlines and their terrifyingly filthy bathrooms. Anxious about getting hungry (ever since cancer my hunger is always a hangry and it gets scary, fast) so I bring way too much food in my bag.

No talking. I sit down and plug in, even if there’s nothing playing in my earbuds. I know soon the plane will get really loud and it will be hard to hear, I know I’m exhausted, or will be soon, and I’ve been looking forward to this long haul flight as a chance to finish a book or two. Exception, and perhaps lesson learned, the one time I did chat with the woman next to me, we hit it off so well that we got coffee a few week later, in Minnesota, and we’re still in touch. (shout out to Cathy P!)

And here’s my tips to avoid your own travel shame. (Though part of me feels like: as long as we are civil to others, kind and externally patient, a little nose-picking and farting shame aren’t so bad. We’re traveling. We’re exhausted and stinky and can’t remember what country we’re in, we don’t need to be classy or composed. Maybe that’s just me. If you run into me on an airplane, I will not be my best self.)

Don’t

Judge parents of young children. They aren’t pinching them to make them cry. They didn’t give them speed to make them hyper. They also would like to sleep in peace and eat without spilling. They are more tired than you and carry the burden of loving the crying child while also carrying the burden of judgment and guilt. They are generally doing a really good job and getting small children across the planet is a serious accomplishment. If you have the chance, tell them they are doing a good job, even if the baby cried the whole flight and the toddlers block the aisle with a temper tantrum. They deserve medals, not rude stares.

Take too long in the bathroom. I don’t know what some people do in there. Well, okay, I can imagine what they are doing and we can all smell it when they come out. But if it is at all possible, do the big ones before or after your flight. I know it isn’t always possible. I know traveler’s diarrhea is a real thing. But if you can help it, hold it. You know its been a while when the passengers start making smirky eyes at each other. Well, you don’t know that, because you’re in there doing your thing, but rest assured, we’re out here making smirky eyes at each other.

Change into pajamas. I don’t know, I guess you can, if you want. But do you need to? Do you really need to change clothes (see: don’t take too long in the bathroom) in order to get a horrible sleep? It feels weird, like we’re strangers sharing a king-size bed in a hotel or something.

Overflow your carry-ons. Totally, totally overfill them. Fill them, fill them! But hide it, hide it. Pretend that 2-ton carry-on is lightweight. This is to spare yourself the judgment others might cast upon you, who probably have just as much in their carry-ons, they just packed it better. Don’t have three plastic bags stacked on top of your carry on, a backpack, and a pillow the size of a toddler. Okay, again to be honest, go ahead, have all that stuff. I don’t really care, but you will get some snarky looks and side comments behind your back. Who cares, we’re all strangers. You do you.

Barefeet. Stocking feet, questionable. Bare? Gross. I’m telling this to my very own precious and gross family, so there’s that. Seriously. There is never a good reason to go into a public bathroom in bare feet and I dare say it is problematic even in socks. Have you ever looked, I mean really looked at the floor in an airplane bathroom? Have you thought about what is likely down there? Plus, your feet stink. I know mine do after hours and hours on a plane. If you don’t have stinky feet and if you put your shoes back on to go to the bathroom, fine, take ‘em off while in your seat.

Snore. Not only is this loud and sounds painful, it reminds the rest of us that you are soundly asleep while we toss and turn. How do people manage to fall asleep so deeply on planes that they actually snore? On our most recent epic flight which took 72 hours, I slept maybe 4 hours. My husband thought I was going to lose it and I nearly did, and then he started snoring.

Take out your frustration or anger on the airline employees who are not the ones who broke your plane, lost your luggage, and do not have stinky bare feet. They are doing the best they can.

Lastly,

Don’t listen to me.

Do what you need to do to get through the flights as happily as you can. Its hard and you’re about to land and experience culture shock. Brace yourself. Pick, fart, stink, snore, overpack, and just get there in one piece.

What are some of your best travel tips?

 

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