When "Zombies" Come to Life

A review of Tim Ward's Zombies on Kilimanjaro.

Posted Jun 01, 2012

I was delighted when Tim Ward asked me to write a review of his book about his seven-day trek up and down Mount Kilimanjaro with his son Josh. I have heard stories of that mountain—from my parents who hiked it in their 60s, and good friends who did it in their 40s. I know what an arduous adventure it is—both mental and physical. I know how the experience can take you far beyond your comfort zone to places internal and external where you see things and know things you’ve never seen or known before. Further, Tim, at least, had a mission. He wanted to reconnect with Josh—an adult son from an earlier divorce. So I was curious, what did the Ward duo discover?

 I wasn’t disappointed. There are so many aspects of this book that I enjoyed.

For one, Tim’s narrative enacts what I, as a parent, find true: our desire to connect with our children requires us to resolve whatever issues linger in our relationship with our own parents. Tim’s book is about his relationship with Josh, but it is equally about his relationship with his own father. As he interacts with Josh, Tim is haunted by memories of his own father. Tim finds himself repeating some of the very patterns of relating that he vowed never to repeat in relation to his own son.

Yet Tim’s desire to connect with Josh impels him to find his freedom from his own hurt and resentment. Tim makes the effort to understand his father, and to empathize with his own younger self. Tim realizes that his own father’s domineering attitude, as much as Tim hated it, helped him find his own independence. And this appreciation of his father frees him to feel gratitude for what he received—a gratitude that spills over into greater generosity towards Josh in his own efforts to find independence from Tim. This work is hard work—perhaps even as difficult as climbing Kilimanjaro—and the Ward duo does it.

In Family Planting, I suggest that the recreating of relationships with parents that our desire to connect with our children impels us to do also benefits from a strong partnership. In fact, it requires it. Tim’s experience confirms this dynamic as well. Although his partner Teresa (not Josh’s mother) is absent from the action, she appears in the story that Tim tells Josh about himself—a story that Tim wrote about in his previous book (Savage Breast). Suffice to say, Tim would never have been able to climb this mountain, find new ways to move in relation to Josh, or write this book without having done the work he needed to do to connect with Teresa. The two books go together.

Further, I also appreciated the way in which Tim’s narrative demonstrates how time in the natural world opens us to resources in our bodily selves for navigating our human relationships that we would not otherwise have been able to access. The mountain is not just a metaphor here. It is a formidable, irreducible presence. There is no way to climb it except by stepping one foot at a time. Nor is it a human creation. It is nature. It stands for nature. And the nature it is opens those who climb it to the nature in themselves—to the creative, chaotic realm of senses and emotions. To our fundamental human capacity to make new movements—to create and become patterns of sensation and response.

As I have found as well, nature is a resource and enabling condition for doing the work of creating human relationships. It is not just that the wilderness provides a liminal space into which individuals can slip free of hierarchical, emotional patterns. Nor is it that the exhaustion depletes the energy needed to sustain one’s personal defenses. Rather, the bodily effort of moving through nature awakens our sensory selves in ways that put us in touch with our primary creativity. We can’t help but feel what we are feeling, and we can’t help but engage it, and create out of it. There is no escape. And Tim and Josh don’t even try.

Finally, I also appreciate the way in which Tim and Josh’s conversations about their own relationship open up into a series of reflections about the fate of the earth. All along his physical and emotional journey with Josh, Tim is commenting on the ecological changes that are happening on the mountain and to the mountain as a result of global warming. His impetus for coming to a new place with Josh and with his own father is inextricably bound up with his concern for the planet: what is the legacy that we are leaving for generations to come? What kind of world are we creating? 

And the answer is all inclusive. As I write, Family Planting, “If we are to connect with this planet in mutually life-enabling ways, we must learn to love one another. If we are to connect with one another in mutually life-enabling ways, we must open ourselves to the sensory experiences our movement through nature provides.” The two go hand in hand.

If I were to offer a criticism of the book, it would be this: it is so very neat. It may indeed have happened exactly as Tim describes: two men, one hike, seven days, deep discussions, shared revelations, and presto, a new relationship.

In my experience, however, such changes take time—lots of it. The patterns of sensing and responding that we create in our lives are tenacious. They arise again and again, with slightly different nuances, in slightly different situations, provoking slightly different bursts of pain, and thus, I would argue, provide occasions once again to find even more freedom and pleasure and connection. Such recreating is well worth it—infinitely so—but it takes vigilance. It takes an ongoing willingness to embrace the discomfort as a guide to further healing. Seven days is a bit ambitious. But then again, so is Tim.

Finally, while the title possesses a certain kind of cultural whimsy, and while the father-son pair do refer to themselves as “zombies,” it is a bit misleading. Rest assured, the two are decidedly not zombies. The arc of the story is about how they each come to life in a new way, rather than continue in an endless death. And both men are deeply grateful for it.

Reader beware: you may end up feeling inspired to hike Kilimanjaro; you may end up feeling inspired to work on your relationships with your adult children, or you may end up inspired to do both. Any which way, you are in for a worthwhile adventure.