There have been only a few moments in Zambia in which I’ve felt disconnected, far away. Once, in a minor way, scanning the list of names attending my 5th college reunion on my internet phone while tucked into bed in my hut. A few weeks later, in a more fervent, desperate way, when I got wonderful, frightening, and confusing news about a few family members in a matter of moments, and a variety of emotions washed over me, soaking me in a pool of loneliness. And today, when I learned that the bodies of my friend Ben Horne and his climbing partner Gil had been found on the mountain they were climbing in the Andes.
When I heard, a few days ago, that the two were missing—and had been for a few days—I knew the odds weren’t good. I knew the risk of what Ben was doing, the inherent risk in most all of the things Ben did. Not silly, reckless things, but feats of physical and psychological strength, skill, and stamina. And while the news that he was out there missing on a mountaintop in Peru was troubling, it wasn’t shocking. The thought that came to me was simply, “He doesn’t live life sitting down.” As saddened as I was by the possibility that he may have died out there, climbing, while reading emails about search-and-rescue missions and prayer meetings, it also seemed a completely natural and logical conclusion—of course Ben would die doing something he loved. Maybe not so tragically soon, but eventually. We all die, but we don’t all live. It seemed somehow fitting that Ben’s death would come from his unabashed pursuit of life in all its fullness. An adventurer to the end, always pitting his mind and body against harder and harder challenges, defying limits, embracing adversity, enthralling in the summit, the finish, and most of all, the ascent/race/journey itself.Once the news hit me, of course, I had to make a mental shift. From the Ben Jammin on my mental list of people I really need to write letters to, to the Ben who has become a past tense. Who lives in memory. Who won’t be there to catch up over barbecue and beers at some point in the future, but who touched my life in the past.
I don't think I've spoken to Ben since our phone chat in August/September when I was invited to Lesotho. But after looking over the "Memories of Ben" document that friends were compiling and starting my own list, I became newly aware of what a strong role he played in my life in San Diego those ten months of 2009/2010. It makes me miss him--now, gone for good. And miss Shannon, and Huy, and other mutual friends, and makes me wish that I could be there with them, wish I could be part of the communal grieving and healing. Were I in the U.S., I'd almost certainly be booking a flight to San Diego. But I'm here, in Zambia. A tiny part of that is due to Ben.
We met originally at a Second Sunday Supper (previously known by some other name, now forgotten) at the UCSD Newman Center, where we talked about running the Boston Marathon and his upcoming trip to Israel. At a church welcome picnic on La Jolla Shores not long after, I took advantage of the fact that he was one person in the crowd I had met before and struck up conversation about his trip to the Middle East. The conversation led into others, and I lingered long past sunset. Having not much else to do, I hung around after the picnic finished and helped load up the grill and leftovers in his car and take them to his house a few blocks away. He noted that now I knew the place and would be able to attend his multi-cultural party the coming weekend. Which I did, bringing along flags from my collection to help with the world-themed décor. Just like that, I was in. Between Ben and Huy Nguyen, (who later told me he had conspired with Ben to nab me for their group), I was warmly welcomed into “kewlestscc,” a small church community of young adults who met for dinner, conversation, and Bible reflection at various members’ homes every week. I had been in the state for approximately a month, having moved to California on a bit of a whim, with no job, no permanent housing, no network of friends awaiting me. I found the first two, in one way or another, on my own, but Ben played a crucial role in securing the third. SCC became such a highlight, such a core part of my life, that individual meetings hardly register in my mind anymore. There were so many that I can’t count them or recall them in order. SCCs were routine, as much as taking a shower; always refreshing and enjoyed immensely but not individually distinct. I do, however, remember moments, comments, feelings from individual meetings. Ben could always be counted on to offer educated insight or stir up an argument. I once joked with him that we disagreed on everything. Nonetheless, no matter how much my opinion differed from Ben’s, it was always invigorating to talk with him, because his conversation provoked thought.
As central as SCC gatherings were, my memories of Ben float around so many other shared events, often with the same core group of friends but always open to others. A Trans-Siberian Orchestra concert at Christmastime that he organized a group to attend, describing it as an excessive display of pyrotechnics, his Superbowl party, YAG planning meetings and retreat, various running events. We supported mutual friends at the Carlsbad Marathon and ½ Marathon; I was among those he supported in the La Jolla ½ Marathon, exchanging a high five as I passed by his bench in the last mile or so. As Huy and I drove to L.A., we stopped to support him as he completed a triathlon somewhere up the coast. Ben’s athletic prowess was inspiring, and he was refreshingly candid about his experiences. After completing the IronMan competition, and as I was lamenting that I was failing in my attempts to learn to surf, he mused that he perhaps should have never done the IronMan after all. Instead, he could have spent the training time surfing instead, given his proximity to the ocean and the “extremely athletic” nature of the sport.
Ben was a man of so much skill. An athlete, an academic, a man of religious scholarship and devotion. In some ways, though, what most mystified me was his inexplicable ability to manage time. Ben did so much but was always game to hang out. I never heard an opportunity for social time turned down by “I have to work,” or “I have to train,” or “I have tests to grade,” though of course he did have all those things to do. His life must have been inordinately busy, but it never seemed that way. When he was with you, he was there. Anything else occupying his life would find time elsewhere, and interactions with him were unencumbered by any sense of hurrying on to the next task. He loved a chill, laid-back party, and as someone who loves hosting but becomes extremely overwhelmed trying to make everything run smoothly, I both envied and learned from his wildly different approach. Ben had a grace to hosting that reflected his inability to worry. His philosophy was to throw some meat on the grill, chill a case or two of beer, assemble a motley crew and let things roll. He didn’t seek to impress anyone. He just enjoyed being with people, and brought his stress-free vibe to any gathering. This ease of being didn’t seem to be a skill he practiced, but one that came naturally to him. He once tried to rally financial support for Wikipedia, and talked about the significance of the loss were it not to exist. Liora jokingly asked him, “Whatever would you do with your time?” I remember sitting there in awe that this guy, who could spend so much of his time with friends, could also spend his precious personal time “procrastinating” online, though of course his form of procrastination was endlessly feeding his craving to know more, to understand better, and to contribute his own knowledge to the public canon.
Ben could always be counted on to enlighten us on theology, politics, and a host of other issues, and he was able to do so in a way that didn’t seem pedantic or preaching. While his field of study was political economics, there was only one economic concept that I associate strongly with him: consumption smoothing. The idea was that he wasn’t going to wait until he was rich to enjoy his life. Rather, he would try to average his expenditures and divide them over his life, both before and after reaching that particular earning potential. “The basic idea,” he would say, “is that you don’t spend all the money you make in your first year right then. Because you’ve already spent it.” While not necessarily indicative of his rational economic insight, the theory was highly indicative of his approach to life. He wasn’t going to wait until he was 50 and wealthy and then live exorbitantly. Instead, he was going to live. In the moment. Traveling, journeying, seeking adventure, sucking the marrow out of all he could find to savor. Sure, it might cost a bit more than he’s earning currently, but over the course of time, it’d all average out. Don’t wait until tomorrow, consumption smoothing said. Do it today. Tomorrow will find a way.
The more I think back to sunny San Diego, the more I find Ben’s presence: my farewell pool party, meeting his nephews on La Jolla Shores, Taize prayer sessions at church, in the side chapel, and once at the beach just after sunset. But perhaps the most valuable time I had with him was an afternoon we spent together in January 2010, when I was applying to Peace Corps. San Diego was being pummeled with uncharacteristic rainstorms, and I made my way to his house on the bus. (As it turns out, I saw a job advertisement on that particular bus that helped keep me from financial destitution the next five months.) We had talked previously about Peace Corps and his experience in Kyrgyzstan. He had likened Peace Corps to a Harley Davidson--not necessarily the best motorcycle, but the one with the most brand clout—and had encouraged me to explore other organizations that did similar work, as well. He later told me that Liora and he had discussed it, and they felt Peace Corps would be a good fit for me because I lacked the defiant, anti-authority streak that was part of Ben’s personality (particularly, perhaps, when he was younger, as he joined the Peace Corps straight out of college). On this particular afternoon, I went to hang out with him for the first (and perhaps only) time one-on-one, to pick his brain on lots of subjects, including the Peace Corps. I wanted to figure out if I was applying for the right reasons or was just tired of the endless job search and paycheck-to-paycheck nature of my life in San Diego. I had left an incredibly challenging, rewarding job in North Carolina the year before, and while I loved many aspects of the life my California adventure brought, I missed having meaningful work.
“I’m not helping anyone,” I said, curled up on the couch in the living room that played host to so many gatherings. His response changed my perspective.
“You’re helping us,” he said. He continued that I was doing something worthwhile with my life, just by being a valued member of the community of which we were both part. It made me feel good, naturally. More than that, it helped shape the way that I see my Peace Corps service now, and the goals I have for how to live other chapters of my life yet to come. I can only try to live the best life I know how. I hope to do something positive here, in Zambia, just as I would hope to contribute positively to my community wherever I live.
Ben knew a lot of things. He knew, better than most of us, how to live in community. He was an inspirational spirit who embraced life in all its adventure and all its quiet wonders. I went to live in San Diego because I felt it was where I was called to be at the time. I didn’t know exactly why, but I’ve no doubt that knowing Ben was no small part of the plan. His presence has not dimmed. Ben Jammin, you always encouraged us to “maintain the light.” We will do our best to maintain yours.